Collection Spotlight: Girl with Earring, 1961/1962, Milton Rogovin

Milton Rogovin (American, 1909-2011)
Girl with Earring from the series East Side, Buffalo, New York
Silver gelatin print
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, The Richard Florsheim Art Fund Purchase, 2000.25.16
Image reproduced courtesy of The Rogovin Collection, Forest Park, Illinois

Milton Rogovin was a documentary photographer best known for his work focusing on the representation of impoverished and working-class individuals of diverse backgrounds (Herzog, 2006). Born to a family of Jewish-Lithuanian immigrants in 1909 in New York City, Rogovin graduated from Columbia University in 1931 with a degree in optometry and worked at his own practice for a number of years before being blacklisted by the McCarthy-era House of Un-American Activities Committee for his left-leaning political activity in 1957. Following the demise of his optometry career, Rogovin switched to photography. He was commissioned to document the storefronts and churches of Buffalo, New York. This series launched him into a career in documentary photography and evolved into a practice focusing on documenting the poor and the oppressed, the “forgotten ones,” as he called them (O’Neill, 2011).

In his 1961/1962 work Girl with Earring, Rogovin photographed a young black girl from the east side of Buffalo, New York. The title of Rogovin’s photograph likens it to the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s painting Girl with a Pearl Earring from 1665. With her head turned to the sun to show her profile, she appears peaceful with her eyes closed and a slight smile on her face. Such photographs of African Americans, and specifically African American children, were rare at the time. Portrait photography had often been reserved for people of high status or to record important events. Rogovin was cognizant of the exclusionary nature of the medium and used his work to critique the field. He wanted to be a photographer for the common person and did not attempt to glamorize his subjects (O’Neill, 2011). He frequently pointed out that, unless you were rich or famous, you would most likely never have your photograph taken, stating “The rich ones have their own photographers.” (Milton Rogovin, n.d.).  He combined aspects of portrait photography and documentary photography to emphasize his subjects’ humanity, giving visibility to the underrepresented (O’Neill, 2011).

Unlike other documentary photographers of the time, Rogovin made a pointed effort to include black people in his documentation of American poverty. In Girl with Earring, Rogovin captures the humanity of his subject; he brings focus to her poise and presence rather than reducing her to an anonymous representation of economic status or disenfranchisement. She looks as though she may have been playing dress up, with her head positioned to proudly display a dangling earring and her hair carefully arranged in a bun. I’m particularly fond of this work because it presents this young girl looking peaceful and free of worry, completely comfortable with her surroundings. This is a major contradiction to earlier examples of documentary photographs of black children, which often showed them performing nationalist rituals, such as the Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Saluting the Flag at the Whittier Primary School 1899-1900, in order to show black people’s ability to assimilate into white American culture. Instead, Girl with Earring allows you to focus on the individuality and beauty of this young girl without reducing her to a token representative of a racial or social background.

—Contributed by Brianna Heath, Curatorial Intern (BA, Art History and German 2021)

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences.



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