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Milton Rogovin, Photographer Of 'Forgotten Ones,' Dies At 101

Milton Rogovin's life was about seeing. In the literal sense, he was an optometrist; trained at Columbia, where he was graduated in 1931, he returned to his practice in Buffalo, N.Y., after serving as a WWII Army doctor.

In a more figurative sense, through the lens of his camera, he saw things and people that were often ignored — the poor, the oppressed, the "forgotten ones," as he called them. Rogovin lived a long life of ten decades, and died yesterday at his home in Buffalo at the age of 101.

Rogovin, born in New York City in 1909, the son of Jewish-Lithuanian immigrants, moved to Buffalo in 1938. He bought his first camera in 1942, the same year he was drafted into the Army. Upon his return after the war, Rogovin organized an optometrist's union in Buffalo and also became librarian of the city's Communist Party.

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In the 1950s, during the McCarthy administration's Red Scare, Rogovin was blacklisted for his left-leaning activities, and was summoned to testify before court. Although he refused to appear, a local newspaper referred to him as the "top red in Buffalo." Rogovin's business was nearly halved as a result, but less business meant more time for photography.

Rogovin turned his camera toward the people in Buffalo's Lower West Side — the poor neighborhoods surrounding his optometry practice. "I never told them how to stand or what to do," he told NPR's Scott Simon in 2003. Rogovin allowed his subjects to compose themselves as proud people, not as victims, in front of the camera. He returned to this neighborhood two more times throughout his career to photograph the same people.

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Milton Rogovin in his basement darkroom, 1980s Courtesy of Mark Rogovin hide caption

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Courtesy of Mark Rogovin

He stopped working in 2002, but throughout his life photographed Buffalo's black churches, working people in Appalachia, in Chile and in Mexico — published several books and saw many of his photographs in galleries. Often accompanied (and funded) by his wife, Anne, he used almost exclusively a vintage Rolleiflex camera with black-and-white film.

His archives are now housed at the Library of Congress (and many more images are stored at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson). "I thought that photographing people ... " he told Simon, "that I would be able to speak out about the problem of people this time through my photography." Although silenced during the Red Scare, Rogovin's voice intensified in the years that followed — and provided a mouthpiece for other unheard voices in turn.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report