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The first time Sammie "Pee Wee" West saw Milton Rogovin point his camera at him, he was on his way to buy a beer at a small grocery on Buffalo's lower west side. "I said, 'What are you? Undercover FBI?' Because that's what I figured he was. I mean, why else was this old white guy taking my picture?"
That was in 1972, and the remark must have launched Rogovin, a former optometrist who lost his practice in 1957 after being labeled the town's biggest Communist on the front page of the Buffalo Evening News, into one of the long, trilling laughs that still roll off him at the age of 93. What he was doing, Rogovin explained last week at the exhibit of his work at the New-York Historical Society, was trying to capturewith all their inherent individual dignitythe people of the declining and racially changing neighborhood near his old optometric office, the one he had been forced to give up after he lost most of his customers as a result of red-baiting by the House Un-American Activities Committee and harassment by the FBI.
"It was filled with very, very poor people, there was a lot of prostitution, high unemployment, drugs. That was the kind of neighborhood I wanted to photograph. I didn't want to show the middle class or the rich, they had their own pictures," said Rogovin, who had no formal training in photography. "I wanted to show these people, with all their problems, if they would allow me to photograph them, show that they were just people."
Rogovin, along with his wife Anne, who accompanied him on his photographic journeys, spent 30 years recording the people of one of Buffalo's most blighted neighborhoods, returning again and again to shoot the same people as they aged and as their children grew up. Appropriately, they called the series "The Forgotten Ones."
The picture Rogovin snapped that day in 1972 captured West leaning in the store's entryway, a knit cap atop his head and a mixture of curiosity and guarded amusement on his face. It's similar to the kind of photos taken by many social-minded shutterbugs who, with the best of intentions, try to capture the pathos of poverty. What sets Rogovin's work apart is that while there's no escaping the destitution, what emerges most strongly is the pride and endurance of his subjects.
What also sets it apart is the impact it had on those he photographed. The next time West saw Rogovin coming it was 1985, and he was drinking heavily and down on his luck, sitting atop a sidewalk newspaper container. "I said, 'What you want now? Don't you have enough pictures?' " Still, West let him take his photo, and Rogovin, as he did often with his subjects, later brought him a copy. "Something I saw in that picture scared me," said West, as he stood in front of the series Rogovin took of him. It scared West enough to try for the first time to beat the alcoholism that he said had beset him ever since, as a child, he stood guard over his grandfather's moonshine operation in rural Georgia. Today, West organizes alcohol recovery groups and produces shows on a Buffalo public access cable television station.
Jimmy Webster, another Rogovin subject, was just two years old when he was photographed in his father's arms. By the time Rogovin returned in 1985, Webster was 16. His father was gone and his mother was raising the family. To do so, she had gone out and learned to weld and work a jackhammer, joining the almost all-male laborers' union. "My mother did jobs that would make most men cry," said Webster, himself now a member of Laborers Local 210, with pride. Part of that pride, he said, was born from the attention and thoughtfulness lavished on his family by the Rogovins.
Had he ever wondered just what the elderly Rogovin was up to, Webster was asked. "I knew just what he was doing," he said. "He was photographing people being themselves."
"For Milton and Anne, it's all about celebrating dignity," David Isay, a maker of radio documentaries, told a crowd last Thursday evening at the opening of the show.
Isay, along with partners Harvey Wang and David Miller, went up to Buffalo in 1999 to interview the Rogovins, whose work was then known mostly to connoisseurs of social photography. They returned frequently over the next three years, resulting in the show now on exhibit at the historical society and a film documentary by Wang, a former Voice photographer, which won a first prize this spring at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Red-baiting Rogovin may have been one of the worst mistakes the McCarthyites ever made, said Isay, because it unleashed the former optometrist in his new trade, celebrating and empowering the people his politics supported.
HUAC came to Buffalo in 1957 for one of its inquisition-style hearings and made Rogovin, whose activism included organizing a union of optometrists, its showcase witness. A yellowed copy of the Evening News, displayed at the exhibit, shows that it ran five stories about the hearings on its front page the next day. "Rogovin Named Top Red in Buffalo, Balks at Nearly All Queries," blared the biggest headline, alongside a snapshot of a young Rogovin, his right hand raised. Also on display is a thick dossier of FBI memos. "Subject has been known by Buffalo Security as an active Communist Party member since 1946," reads a telex sent to J. Edgar Hoover in 1953.