It’s 1972, and we’re on the Lower West Side, a downtrodden neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. Three-year-old Monica “Kiki” Cruz’s mom is excitedly dressing her because a man is coming to take their picture, and she wants her daughter to look her best.
“She didn’t even have time to do her own hair, so she threw on that old floppy hat,” Kiki will recall nearly three decades later as she looks back on the portrait, which shows herself serious and attentive and her mom sitting proudly at her side.
The portrait was one of several thousand made by Milton Rogovin, a onetime optometrist who over the years has photographed the residents of the Lower West Side, as well as laborers all over the world, in a desire to honor those he calls “the forgotten ones.” Now, the New-York Historical Society in New York City is honoring the 93-year-old photographer himself with “The Forgotten Ones,” an exhibition of some 130 of his Lower West Side images.
“We like the fact that he’s photographing ordinary people and frequently people of very modest means, who aren’t often depicted in these citadels of culture,” says Travis Stewart, director of public relations for the museum. “And they’re beautiful photos.”
This beauty derives as much from the subjects—whose faces convey stories of hardship but also of genuine affection for the gentle old man behind the camera—as from the photos’ rich tonalities. Rogovin did the first round of portraits in 1972 and returned three more times over the next 30 years. In Kiki’s case, he traces her evolution from apple-cheeked child to troubled teen to thriving 20-something to in 2001, daughter still mourning the loss of her mother, who died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1998.
“Even though I knew I wouldn’t get any money out of this thing, I kept working because it was the thing that drove me—the idea of photographing these people,” says Rogovin. “And many of them later on said they were so grateful that I paid attention to them, that nobody paid attention to them.”
Rogovin and his wife, Anne, who died just this summer, endured hardships themselves. In 1957, he was called to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (he says he was “active in the radical movement”). The local paper labeled him Buffalo’s “Top Red,” and business at his optometric practice fell by half.
Refusing to be silenced, Rogovin pursued photography as a way of expressing his beliefs. He never achieved cash-rich success photographing the working poor, but his efforts have brought him notice, from the W. Eugene Smith Award for Humanistic Photography to publication in numerous books.
In June, the Quantuck Lane Press published a monograph of the Lower West Side images called The Forgotten Ones. It features interviews with the subjects conducted by Dave Isay and Dave Miller of Sound Portraits, a New York–based nonprofit corporation that focuses on society’s neglected, known best for their NPR radio documentaries. (Photographer Henry Wang also collaborated on the book and recently directed an award-winning short film on Rogovin.)
“His book is a longitudinal study of how people change through time,” notes Isay. “But watching Milton is like a longitudinal study of a documentarian and the impact you can have when you really stick with people and do the right thing—and also how rich your life can be when you don’t sell out.”
(Published in the September 2003 issue of PDN.)