Ecstatic worshipers in store-front churches, steel workers in their homes, the down-and-out inhabitants of Buffalo’s skid row: social documentary photographer Milton Rogovin was never interested in the well-to-do. Thus, the quote that serves as the title of Ezra Bookstein’s sharp and fully realized portrait of Rogovin, now 98 years old.
In the fifties, Rogovin was working as an optometrist when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused to give any answers and was promptly named “the top red in Buffalo.” Silenced in the political arena, Rogovin turned to photography as an expressive outlet. His photos of poor Black church services were published in Aperture Magazine with an introduction by W.E.B. DuBois. For the next nine years, Rogovin and his wife Anne spent their summers in Appalachia to take portraits of miners. He went on to collaborate with Pablo Neruda on a book of photos from Chile and produce an ongoing series of portraits from Buffalo’s Lower West Side at ten-year-intervals.
Rogovin’s photos are a revelation: startlingly honest, they are as beautiful as they are unnerving. The unglamorous subjects are not usually the center of our attention, yet we can somehow see their personality before we see their dire surroundings. These are pictures that spark talk of inequality and human dignity. As James Wood of the Art Institute of Chicago explains in the film, the photos’ undeniable artistic accomplishment is a way of making a more effective case: the beauty comes bearing a message, and for Rogovin, art is only ever a means to an end.
The Rich Have Their Own Photographers. Ezra Bookstein, 2007. ****