Classic twentieth-century American documentary photography is a major strength of the photography collection. Milton Rogovin is a great exemplar of the tradition in the second half of the century. He was influenced by pioneers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, who strived to change working conditions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and others such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, who documented the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s.
As a young man, Rogovin suffered through the Great Depression, and his political and social conscience was further heightened in 1957 when he was called before the House Committee on Un‑American Activities to answer allegations of Communism. His career as an optometrist was ruined and he felt, ‘I could no longer be indifferent to the problems of the people, especially the poor, the forgotten ones’. In 1958, he photographed gospel services held in storefront churches in the African-American neighbourhood of Buffalo, New York, starting him on the path to becoming one of America’s most celebrated social documentary photographers.
Rogovin worked in large series over time with his subjects always determining how they should be portrayed. He presented people head on, at eye level, centring them, capturing them in sharp focus. In this way, he sought to eliminate psychological distance. He often showed people in their home and at work—a simple yet powerful device countering social and gender stereotypes.
The cultural and social importance of Rogovin’s work was recognised in 1999 when the United States Library of Congress archived his negatives and prints as a national resource.
He died in early 2011, shortly after celebrating his 101st birthday. The National Gallery is fortunate to have received a gift from American benefactor David Knaus of 45 of Rogovin’s photographs from 1958 to 1991. Rogovin’s images of miners feature in a display in the Photography gallery from 31 March to 29 July.
Anne O’Hehir Assistant Curator, Photography
in artonview, issue 69, autumn 2012