A Blacklisted Photographer Who Took To The Streets

Silenced by the politics of the time, Milton Rogovin began taking photographs on Buffalo's lower West Side in the 1950s. Not photos of celebrities posing or ducking from flashbulbs, but portraits of the kind of people who rarely appeared in photographs. Host Scott Simon has a remembrance of Rogovin, who died this week at the age of 101.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We met Milton Rogovin in the summer of 2003. He'd been an optometrist in Buffalo, New York in the 1950s and enough of an activist to get blacklisted. How does an optometrist get blacklisted, we wondered. Did you only correct vision for the left eye? He laughed.

Silenced by the politics of the time, Milton Rogovin began to take photographs on Buffalo's lower West Side. Not photos of celebrities posing or ducking from flashbulbs, but portraits of the kind of people who rarely appeared in photographs. But Rogovin said he wanted to take portraits of what the Puerto Rican families on Buffalo's lower West Side called Los Olvidados, the forgotten ones; not to document poverty, but humanity.

Family portraits and celebrations, Saturday night parties, Sunday services, and the everyday jobs of people who wore hardhats, watch caps and firefighter's helmets. The look in the eyes of his subjects were often arresting. They seemed to lock eyes with Milton Rogovin's camera. He told us:

Mr. MILTON ROGOVIN (Photographer): I never told them how to stand or what to do. All I suggested to them was that they look at the camera. That was all I ever did. And most of them feel so good that somebody wanted to photograph them, pay attention to them.

SIMON: Over the decades, his photographs began to appear in galleries and museums. With increasing recognition, he traveled to take photos in Appalachia and Latin America. He always shot black and white film, with an old Rolleiflex camera: it seemed to suspend his portraits in a kind of timelessness.

Milton Rogovin didn't start taking photographs until he was 48. By the time that he died this week at the age of 101, the archives of the man who was once blacklisted were housed in the U.S. Library of Congress.

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