Academic journal article Afterimage

Milton Rogovin: An Activist Photographer; an Interview by Robert Hirsch

Academic journal article Afterimage

Milton Rogovin: An Activist Photographer; an Interview by Robert Hirsch

Article excerpt

Robert Hirsch: What was your family background?

Milton Rogovin: My parents, Jacob and Dora, came to America as immigrants and set up a store that sold household goods in New York City, where I was born in December 1909. In 1931 the Great Depression forced the store into bankruptcy.


Why did you move to Buffalo, New York?

I graduated from Columbia University as an optometrist in 1931 just four months after my father died. Work was very scarce and sporadic. I came to Buffalo for a job in 1938 and established my own practice the following year.

How were you politicized by the 1930s Depression and the rise of fascism?

The loss of my father's business, his following death, and the concrete events I witnessed of people suffering everyday during the Depression completely changed my thinking, and as a result I became politically active. I felt that it was not enough just to feel these things, and that I had to do something to help change the situation. I could no longer be indifferent and like many others at the time I worked for a better future through socialism. I read books by political activists, such as Michael Gold's Jews Without Money (1930) and Change the World (1937), and numerous essays by Emma Goldman, which confirmed my feeling that changes were necessary and we had to do it ourselves.

How did you get involved with workers' rights?

I became involved in left-wing politics, and was active in organizing the Optical Workers Union in New York City. I continued this work in Buffalo and helped to reorganize the disintegrated local optical union here. Most optometrists did not look favorably on my activities (laughs). I picketed two of my boss's offices (laughs) and that was the end of my job. I had union following and I decided to open my own optical office on Chippewa Street, at the edge of Buffalo's Lower West Side.

How did you meet your wife and get interested in photography?

In Buffalo I met Anne [Setters] at a wedding reception while discussing the Spanish Civil War. Anne was not very political at that time (laughs). We were married in 1942, the same year as I bought my first camera, and was drafted into the U.S. Army and went overseas. Anne became active in the radical movement at this time, but it was not until about 15 years later that I really started to make photographs.


What was your first project?

It was the Store Front Church series that I began as a way of speaking out through photography about the problems in our society. W.E.B. DuBois (a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) encouraged me to do this series, and he later wrote an introduction for this work. I was interested in his philosophy, and had read quite a few of his books including Souls of Black Folk, and Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil.

How did a white guy with a Jewish background get interested in Store Front Churches?

(laughing) Bill Talmage, a friend of mine who taught music at Buffalo State College asked me if I would take photographs while he was recording the music at these churches. We worked together for three months, and he completed his series, and I stayed on to do an in-depth study. Every Sunday, for three years, I went to these little storefront churches. They got to know and welcome me, and I always gave everyone pictures.

How did Minor White influence your early work?

Before I knew photographer Minor White [who had been an assistant curator at the George Eastman House, was teaching photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and was a co-founder and the first editor of Aperture]. I didn't know how to capture motion. I had a fixed 1/125th of a second notion about photography. When I showed Minor White my work he suggested that I slow down my shutter speed to 1/25th of a second so I would capture the sense of movement. …

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