Milton Rogovin’s career as an optometrist in Buffalo, New York, was destroyed in 1958, when his political activism–registering African American voters, among other things–made him a target of Joe McCarthy and his buddies at HUAC. Maybe they thought he was tinting his patients’ lenses red. Rogovin, who was 50, began to pursue photography earnestly. It had been a hobby, but he sharpened his technique in a workshop with master photographer Minor White and started documenting black storefront churches in Buffalo. His photos were published in White’s magazine, Aperture, with an introduction by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Rogovin went on to photograph miners in Appalachia, peasants in Chile (in collaboration with Pablo Neruda), Indians in Mexico, immigrants in Yemen, steelworkers in the U.S. He allowed ordinary poor people to present themselves with dignity and poise.

In the Art Institute’s “Photographs by Milton Rogovin, Buffalo’s Lower West Side Revisited: 1972-1984-1992,” the 28 triptychs of seven-inch-square prints from two-and-a-quarter-inch negatives are so rich in tone and sharp in detail that you feel you’re staring at the subjects themselves. Their portraits–at least one person is shown in all three prints in each group–were made in and around their homes over a 20-year period. Babies become adults, couples become families, proud workers become dependent cripples cared for by the former babies.

It’s easy to imagine you know these people–a testament to the photographer’s technique and easy manner: you feel you could walk into the frames, feel the light, smell the air. To me, the man in baggy white pants with heavy leather patches on the knees looks a lot like Ansel Adams with his hat, beard, and thick glasses. The impression is reinforced by the exquisite rendering of the tone and texture of the street scene: flowers blooming, afternoon light slanting between porches. In the two subsequent shots we see a guy whose eyes got so bad he probably lost the job that kept him and his tiny granddaughter in the pretty cottage. In the second frame he looks haunted; the girl, about 12, is herself wearing thick glasses. In the third frame she seems to be caring for the old man, who’s sitting in a wheelchair in a dark room surrounded by religious icons.

Not all of Rogovin’s subjects were that lucky. He tells of returning with a box of prints to a busy corner: “People would gather around, telling me who had died of an overdose, who was in jail, or who had moved away.”

The slight, bespectacled Jewish photographer came with a twin-lens camera on a tripod, an unintimidating but definite presence. He looked down into the box and composed stable, square images of a doorway, a chair, a wall, with the people invariably in the center. The camera was positioned at waist or chest level–below the subject’s eyes, looking straight ahead. The photographer and viewer look slightly up at the individual or group, physically and psychologically–a choice, probably intuitive, that creates sympathy in the viewer. He used natural light or, when there wasn’t enough to produce the perfect sharpness he sought, a bare-bulb flash–a clear bulb on a short stick that lighted up the whole room, the light bouncing around walls and ceiling, filling in the shadow that fell below and to the side. That’s all: camera, tripod, one light–no umbrellas, optional lenses, or gizmos to fuss with, no gadgets to distract the photographer or make the subject nervous. No strange angles or light to draw attention to the photographer and away from the people presenting themselves to his lens.

Rogovin’s works will be on display at the Art Institute, Michigan at Adams, through October 24. Hours are 10:30 to 4:30 Monday, 10:30 to 8 Tuesday, 10:30 to 4:30 Wednesday through Friday, 10 to 5 Saturday, and noon to 5 Sunday; the suggested donation is $6, $3 for students, seniors, and children. Call 443-3600.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.