The Henry Art Gallery at Seattle’s University of Washington is hosting a rare kind of exhibition: a 100th birthday show for a living artist. Milton Rogovin, who began his career as a documentary photographer in the early 1950s and was still working as recently as 2002, will turn 100 on December 31, 2009 and the exhibition is unambiguously titled Happy 100th Birthday, Milton Rogovin!
This, the end of the first decade of the 21st century, and a decade that has brought significant changes in the way documentary images work (cell phone photography and viral videos having made a particularly strong impact), seems like a prime opportunity for looking back. Rogovin’s work provides a telling lens. A former optometrist whose photography career took off after his 1952 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee stymied his medical career, Rogovin counted W.E.B. Dubois and Pablo Neruda among his acquaintances and was constantly using his camera as vehicle into cultures and communities different from his own. The Triptych series, in which he photographed families on the Lower West Side of Buffalo, New York three times each between 1972 and 1994, later expanded into the Lower West Side Quartets when, in the early 2000s, Rogovin once again went looking for his original subjects. The Quartets are melancholic records of a telling swath of time—images that show how much has changed, but also how much is still the same when it comes to what we want from life.
Happy 100th Birthday, Milton Rogovin! remains on view in the Henry’s North Galleries through April 25, 2010. A concurrent birthday exhibition will be held until January 16 at Danziger Projects in New York.