Many of my optometric colleagues have a passion for photography. Is it the “eye as a camera” analogy, or the fascination with lenses and optics? I’m not sure, but if you find yourself amidst a large group of optometrists, chances are several of them will have their cameras ready. I am one of those optometrists with a camera, and that has drawn me to follow the life and work of Milton Rogovin. Dr. Rogovin died a few days ago at the age of 101.
Dr. Rogovin graduated from Columbia’s optometry school in 1931. He moved to Buffalo, N.Y. in 1938 and opened an optometric practice. In 1942, he bought a camera. As a witness to the plight of the working poor and unemployed, he became politically active, and began to attend meetings of the Communist Party. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1957, but he refused to testify. He was labeled as “Buffalo’s Number One Red” and his optometric practice was ruined. He began to devote more time to photography, and the rest is history!
Rogovin’s photography became his voice, and he became a “social documentary photographer.” Before undertaking a new photography project, he wanted to be sure “it would have the possibility of dealing with problems of people, especially the poor, the disadvantaged, the forgotten ones.” His images brought new light to issues of social justice, beginning in his hometown of Buffalo and eventually spanning the globe. Rogovin chose not to focus on the hopelessness and hardship of the people he photographed, but rather on their dignity and strength. In one of my favorite series, he photographed steel mill workers both at work and at home with their families.
Dr. Rogovin remained politically active even when his health declined and he put down his camera. In 2003, he stated, “All my life I’ve focused on the poor. The rich ones have their own photographers.” I’d like to think we can all learn something from Dr. Milton Rogovin.