My evening with Milton Rogovin.



Thursday nights I draw with a group at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Most weeks we are in one of the galleries drawing from the collection.

Just with pencils and markers.

Lines on paper.

Two hours.

Maybe with Degas.

Maybe with Gaugin (not a favorite).

One evening it was in a gallery of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art.

Was it stolen, I wondered?

Last Thursday we were in the basement in the photography gallery. My eyes immediately went to two small photos I recognized by Milton Rogovin.

Of course, I knew of Rogovin who passed away in 2011.

Rogovin was born in Brooklyn of Jewish immigrant parents from Lithuania.

He graduated from Columbia University with a degree in optometry. In 1938 he took a job in Buffalo. He opened a practice on the Lower West Side.

He married Anne in 1942

Milton Rogovin bought his first camera the same year.

He served as an optometrist in the US army, serving in Britain.

After the war he joined the Optical Workers Union and took classes held by the Communist party-run New York Workers School. He discovered the work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.

He served as the librarian for the Buffalo branch of the Communist party.

It was then that the House UnAmerican Activities Committee came after him

He lost his optometry practice.

William Tallmadge, a professor of music at the State University College, who was recording the music in the storefront black churches on the city’s East Side, asked Rogovin to photograph the congregations.

Rogovin’s photographs came to the attention of Minor White who was an editor at Aperture, the photography magazine. White mentored Rogovin, and in 1962 published a portfolio of 48 of these photographs, together with an introduction by WEB Du Bois.

Over the next 10 years Rogovin photographed miners in West Virginia and Kentucky, and Native Americans on reservations in New York state.

“I wanted to make sympathetic portraits of the poorest of the poor that showed them as decent humans struggling to get by … that they were people just like us and should not be looked down upon,” Milton Rogovin had said.

On Thursday, I sat my stool down and opened by bag of pencils and markers and spent two hours with Milton Rogovin’s two photographs from his series called Family of Miners.


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