Hearts and souls captured in the lens: Working people still in focus for Milton Rogovin

“A Thirty Year Focus on a Community: Photographs by Milton Rogovin” Oak Park Public Library Art Gallery 834 Lake St., Oak Park, Ill. Through Nov. 27 For more information: www.miltonrogovin.com

Is there a more sensitive photographer than Milton Rogovin? Has anyone ever brought out the heart and soul of the camera’s subjects the way Rogovin does?

On Nov. 6, many area residents came to the Oak Park (Ill.) Public Library to see a new “traveling exhibit” of 30 years of socially conscious photographs by Milton Rogovin. The traveling exhibit is a relatively low-cost way to mount this moving show. The Rogovin family, spearheaded by son Mark, is developing educational materials in addition to the traveling photos.

To look at Rogovin’s photographs is to travel through space and time to the front porches and living rooms and even the workplaces of people gracious and generous enough to meet us with unblinking honesty. Someone once wrote about “the shock of recognition” when we meet people like us in photographs from far away places. With Rogovin’s work, it is more like finding friends and neighbors you didn’t know you had.

Rogovin has been likened to the great social documentary photographers of the 19th and 20th centuries, Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis.

His photographs, now in the collection of the Library of Congress, speak of the humanity and dignity of working people, the poor and the forgotten.

At the exhibit opening, Mark Rogovin said his father turns 96 in December, so he doesn’t travel from his home in Buffalo, N.Y., any more. Milton’s last trip was to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, where he commented on the irony of a museum based on wealth publishing a book of photographs of poor people.

Almost exactly 30 years ago, in the fall of 1975, a group of us piled into a station wagon and traveled from Chicago to Buffalo to view the first photographs in this same series at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. There were actually three openings that evening: Milton’s series “Lower Westside Buffalo,” some nice paintings by Arthur Dove, and a display by a forgotten “conceptual” artist.

Everyone crowded into the photography gallery. The viewers were four deep in front of some of the images. (A lonely security guard in the gallery with the conceptual exhibit spent his time asking people not to sit on the art, some white painted cubes on the floor.)

Besides the usual art crowd, many people from the neighborhood attended, folks who were in the photographs. I remember meeting Mariposa and her mother, and Papo’s brother (Papo had to work that night and couldn’t make it). I took my catalog around and asked them to autograph their photos. I keep it with my other family photographs.