Capturing ‘the forgotten ones’: New York photographer who dedicated his life to picturing plight of the poor was on FBI watch list
Exhausted coal miners and shabby families hovering aimlessly on streets, in doorways, in bars – these are snapshots of New York’s struggling working class in the mid-20th century.
But before photographer Milton Rogovin began documenting their lives, the government was documenting his, using a network of informants in an era of paranoia toward suspected communists.
‘He is dangerous to the internal security because of his strong adherence to Marxist-Leninist principles,’ said an internal FBI memo dated April 8, 1968.
Suave: From a photography series by Milton Rogovin entitled Lower West Side Revisited, 1984-1986, a Buffalo, New York resident sits atop a newspaper bin in a crisp white suit in sharp contrast to the scene around him
Pose: Two women photographed for the same series which Rogovin said documented ‘the forgotten ones’
It is just one of more than 600 pages of information about Rogovin that the FBI secretly compiled between the 1940s and the 1970s, obtained by the Associated Press.
The file contains memos from former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, chronologies of Rogovin’s attendance and comments at Buffalo Communist Party meetings and samples of his handwriting.
Rogovin and his wife Anne, who died in 2003, had viewed some of the file’s heavily redacted material before their deaths, their son Mark told the Associated Press.
They had known they were being watched and told their children about seeing agents parked outside their home, speaking with neighbors and following them to and from work.
But the couple was not deterred from their involvement in local politics.
‘They believed in it,’ one of two daughters, Ellen Rogovin Hart, said.
Drab: Over six decades, he photographed the struggling working class, including coal and steel workers
Everyday lives: Rogovin photographed people both in and out of their homes to better represent them, he said
Investigation: But before he began photographing the working class as an effective way of relaying his political stance, the FBI started documenting Rogovin’s movements to quiz him over his connection to Communism
‘We as a family were horribly distressed that so many of the people that we felt were good friends turned out to be agents,’ Mark Rogovin, a Chicago activist and mural artist, said.
Born in New York City in 1909, Rogovin moved to Buffalo in 1938 to work as an optometrist.
He became politically active, organizing an optical workers union in a move that cost him his job. He also began attending Communist Party meetings at a Buffalo union hall.
But in 1957 Rogovin realised he could raise awareness of social and economic inequities with his photography, his family told the AP.
A friend, music professor William Tallmadge, invited him to snap services at an African-American church.
He took photographs of people in poor neighborhoods, coal miners, steel workers and Native Americans, calling them ‘the forgotten ones’.
Secret files: Photographer Milton Rogovin, who died in January 2011 aged 101, was monitored closely by the FBI between the 1940s and 1960s with the help of informants who feared the spread of communism
The massive body of work earned him the New York State Governor’s Arts Award in 2000.
Tens of thousands of the photographs now make up the Milton Rogovin Collection, including 29,700 black-and-white negatives, 2,500 contact sheets, and 1,130 signed prints.
They show the full scope of Rogovin’s six decades in photography, documenting the lives of the Yemeni, Chileans, steelworkers, and Native American reservations in upstate New York.
The photographer often pictured his subjects at work and home to show a broader representation of their lives.
Proud: Most of Rogovin’s subjects place emphasis on their families, as above
Eclectic: The photos, comprising the Milton Rogovin Collection, feature Chileans, Yemeni and Native Americans
Moment in time: All of the photographs were taken in upstate New York
Strong: After the FBI collected information on Rogovin through informants, he was pulled in front of a government committee. But he refused to talk about the Communist party, citing the Fifth Amendment
The FBI files give an insight into the photographer’s political leanings.
At a meeting in September 1946, Rogovin reportedly complained of party leaders’ use of ‘plane or Pullman between Buffalo and New York City,’ saying they should travel by coach, the files show.
An entry in 1949 has Rogovin discussing his attendance at a civil rights conference in New York City, according to the AP.
In 1957, Rogovin was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, where he refused to answer questions about the Communist Party.
Questions: Following the committee, Rogovin was names as the ‘top red’ in Buffalo, New York
Future: Although he continued to take photographs, his optometrist business plummeted after the committee
‘Rogovin, named as top red in Buffalo, balks at nearly all queries,’ read the headline the next day in the hometown Buffalo Evening News.
Rogovin saw his optometry business fall by half after his testimony and longtime friends stayed away to avoid being branded Communists.
The Rogovins opted not to re-enroll in the party in 1958, according to the file. Their children said the decision was more about protecting the family and Anne Rogovin’s job as a teacher than politics.
‘They believed in humanity, they believed that people had the right to have a decent job with privileges that working people should have, like health care and wages that were decent,’ Rogovin Hart, a retired elementary school teacher living near Philadelphia, told the Associated Press.
Abundance: More than 30,000 of his photographs are stored in the Milton Rogovin Collection in Arizona, Tuscan
Praise: His body of work earned him the New York State Governor’s Arts Award in 2000
Fight: Rogovin refused to be deterred from politics or art when he discovered he was being monitored
An agent’s 1946 report noted that before Rogovin and his brother, Samuel, opened their own optometry office in Buffalo, he had lost his job at another city office after organizing a union and strike.
‘We’re very proud of our parents,’ Mark Rogovin said.
‘Whatever they did, whatever projects they worked on were really rich projects, important projects dealing with peace and justice, dealing with things like health care.’
Rogovin died nearly a year ago – on January 18, 2011 – aged 101.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2083657/Milton-Rogovin-Photographer-dedicated-life-photographing-plight-poor-FBI-watch-list.html#ixzz3KDaPO3TH
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