“The Syracuse Cultural Workers is the major outlet for all of Milton’s work,” noted Dik Cool, publisher of the organization that uses culture to support political and economic change. “We’ve published a poster, note cards, and one of his quartets was in this year’s Peace Calendar. And we carry all the books about Milton that are in print.”
The four-photo series that marks May in the SCW calendar also graces the wall inside the Gallery at the Ann Felton Multicultural Center. It shows the life of Edwin Santiago of Buffalo, where Rogovin lived and worked; he still resides in the house he’s called home since 1948. He will turn 95 on Dec. 30. Other quartets hang at OCC, all of them accompanied by candid commentary from the subjects themselves. “I was good-looking, so you know what that means,” Santiago not-so-modestly says with a laugh.
In their black-and-white, documentary way, Rogovin’s photos convey a sociological study of the working class; to some they may appear poor, but they would likely not label themselves as such. Especially notable is a series of photos that show subjects both at work and then at home with their families. Not all of those originated in Buffalo, and some show different definitions of family.
A favorite shows a female Appalachian coal miner from 1981, filthy with soot on the left and then remarkably clean on the right. At home, all dolled up with her bouffant hairdo--roots and all--and precise eye-liner, the subject holds her poodle. Three thoughts occur: in both photos her teeth are remarkably white, she’s quite the poser, and even though the shot was taken in 1981, time must have stood still for the coal miner since her style is all 1965.
In many ways, Rogovin’s work shows a population that time forgot. There will always be the working poor, bolstered by their dignity, sense of humor and commitment to their families. It’s easy to judge these people, but Rogovin never criticizes. His photos merely record. “Rogovin traveled widely,” said Andy Schuster, professor of art at OCC, “but he always tried to find the face of the regular person.”
But under Rogovin’s care, the regular becomes remarkable. And the brief 1974 series of the Yemeni community in Lackawanna, a working-class town just south of Buffalo, reminds pre-Sept. 11 and pre-Lackawanna Six Americans that all sorts of immigrant communities have called the United States home for years.
Because of his commitment to what Rogovin called the forgotten ones, his labor union work and his membership in left-leaning organizations like the American League Against War and Fascism, he naturally raised the suspicion of the Communist-wary American government. Rogovin’s original occupation was optometrist, although he purchased his first camera in 1942, after he married Anne Snetsky. He served in the U.S. Army until 1945, but that didn’t preclude the House Committee on Un-American Activities to summon Rogovin before them in 1957. He refused to answer any question other than his name and occupation, but his optometry business suffers. In 1958 Rogovin is invited to take photographs at Holiness Church in Buffalo’s African-American community, and his true calling reveals itself.
Yet another series at the OCC exhibit focuses on Rogovin’s work in the black churches, and it many ways it’s his most powerful on display. It’s no secret that African-Americans worship with a fervor only white Christians dream about, and Rogovin captured both the rapture and the reverence with “Man in Trance,” “Be Filled With the Spirit” and “First Timothy Baptist Church.”
Since Photos of the Forgotten Ones is on display at a college, several professors have conducted classes in the gallery, said Amy Kremenek, OCC’s public relations manager, stressing the photos’ historic and sociological significance. Beyond Rogovin’s reputation, those are compelling reasons to pay the Gallery a visit.
Photos of the Forgotten Ones continues through Thursday, Oct. 6 (2005)at OCC. The Gallery is open Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Ample signage points visitors the right way, and the easiest access to the Ann Felton Multicultural Center is from Route 173 (Onondaga Road). For more information, call 498-2787.