Milton’s Lens

Chris Maguire  |  Chris Maguire is a Dublin based artist and community activist and teaches on the MA Socially Engaged Art and in the Painting Dept at NCAD.

This newspaper is a transatlantic project so it seems right for me here in Ireland to say something about an American photographer whose work is very important to me. Milton Rogovin. 

I had not yet heard of him when in 1992 I moved back to live in Rialto, the neighbourhood where I grew up, in Dublin’s South Inner City. The 1980s had seen a rise in poverty and the arrival of heroin. I got involved in community activism and it was a steep learning curve for me. 

Local people were understandably suspicious of media attention. At that time the main stream media tended to be complicit in demonising and blaming the poor for the crises emerging on a number of fronts. After a couple of years of engagement within the community, I realised that I was becoming accepted as someone without a sensationalist or prurient interest.

I bought a second hand medium format Mamiya C 330 twin lens reflex camera and began to document aspects of daily life locally. It was at this time that I first became aware of the work of Milton Rogovin in the Lower West Side of Buffalo, New York. 

He had been using a twin lens medium format to make portraits of individuals and family groups there since the early 1970s. He had returned in the early 80s to make new portraits of the same people. In the early 90s he came back again and finally, in the early 2000s, he made a last set of portraits of people on the Lower West Side. 

Milton was a socialist and his political understanding of the world gave him an insight into the circumstances of the lives of the poor in his own society. At no point in his work are the people photographed robbed of their basic human dignity. 

His was a kind of photography with love. Not neutral. His commitment to people and place over almost forty years was simple in structure and approach. The cumulative impact is powerful as we see the neglected and marginalised survive down the decades. Through his lens they demand our attention and call out for change towards a more justice and equality based society. His work is available to see online:

Too often simple is equated with easy. The United States of America and the Republic of Ireland are more unequal than ever in terms of wealth distribution. Milton Rogovin died in 2011 after one hundred and one years here on this earth. As I enter my third decade with a similar approach to documenting aspects of daily life here in the South Inner City of Dublin, I remain grateful for the example of Milton Rogovin in the Lower West Side of Buffalo.