Life and Labor: The Photographs of Milton Rogovin
Milton Rogovin (1909–2011) was proud to call himself a “social-documentary photographer.” For more than four decades, he photographed those whom he referred to as “the forgotten ones.” He was working as an optometrist in Manhattan in the early 1930s when he became increasingly involved in leftist causes. Distressed by the rampant social upheaval and widespread poverty caused by the Great Depression, Rogovin attended night classes sponsored by the New York Workers School and became an advocate for social equity. He read the Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker and was introduced to the socialdocumentary photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. In 1957, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, whose hearings had led to the blacklisting and public persecution of many artists. A year later, he devoted himself fulltime to photography: his art became the vehicle for his egalitarian ideals.
Drawn entirely from the permanent collection of the San Jose Museum of Art, this exhibition presents thirty-eight photographs from three series: “Lower West Side, Buffalo” (1972–84), “Working People” (1976–87), and “Family of Miners” (1988– 89). Rogovin shed light on important social issues of the time: the plight of miners; the decline of the once-robust steel industry in upstate New York; the everyday struggles of the poor and working class in Buffalo, New York, where he lived. Life and Labor marks the public debut of these photographs, which were gifted to the Museum’s collection in 2011. Rogovin often grouped his pictures into diptychs and triptychs to produce compelling narratives of the people he photographed. He believed deeply in photography’s ability to be an agent of social change. In addition to their aesthetic value, Rogovin’s photographs serve as important records of the changing workingclass neighborhoods and multi-ethnic communities he documented over the course of many decades, until well into his 90s. Rogovin’s powerful and provocative portraits raise questions that remain equally prescient today, amid current concerns over employment and income gaps.