Through the lens of dignity: Documentarian meets up with longtime photographer of the poor

It took seven long years for Ezra Bookstein to complete his documentary on photographer Milton Rogovin. Good thing Rogovin was only 91 when the project began.

Rogovin is 98 now, and Bookstein’s film, “The Rich Have Their Own Photographers,” has been making the rounds on the film festival circuit. Having won a few awards, the one-hour film has brought both men into the public eye.

The attention matters to Rogovin, but not because he desires fame. As a social documentary photographer, his aim has always been to portray the poor and the forgotten. Over a 50-year career, he has photographed Chilean migrant workers and inner-city prostitutes, Appalachian waifs and Gospel singers.

“He was described by the director of the J. Paul Getty Museum as one of the most important photographers in this genre in the last hundred years,” Bookstein says from his New York home. “Milton really wanted to show the conditions in which people lived, but also their dignity.”

“The Rich Have Their Own Photographers” makes its Bay Area premiere at the San Francisco International Documentary Festival. It will screen in San Francisco on Sunday, Oct. 26, and in Berkeley on Nov. 6.

Bookstein first met Rogovin and his wife, Anne (who died in 2003), while filming a PBS series in late 2000. He was immediately struck with their warmth and vitality, as well as their passion for social justice. It didn’t take the professional cinematographer long to pitch the couple his idea for a film about their lives.

“It wasn’t hard to sell him,” Bookstein recalls. “He and Anne were trying to promote his work for the last 40 years. They never gave up. I said to Milton after the first interview, ‘You’re a Jewish socialist. I am, too.'”

That socialist hook mattered. Born in New York’s Lower East Side, Rogovin grew up with Yiddish as his first language and Ernest Debs-style progressivism as his second.

An optometrist by training in Buffalo, N.Y., where he has lived for decades, Rogovin was forced out of his profession during the McCarthy era. His hometown newspaper labeled him “Buffalo’s Top Red.” Though Anne helped feed the family’s three children by working as a schoolteacher, Milton had to find a new line of work.

A chance request to take pictures for a black church in Buffalo opened the door to a new career.

“He never made a living as a photographer,” Bookstein notes. “He only had a nominal income from photographs, and that was not until late in life.”

In the documentary, Bookstein captures Milton’s love for his subjects and the Rogovins’ love for each other. The film includes scores of Rogovin portraits, all in gorgeous black-and-white and reminiscent of groundbreaking photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.

The struggles of his subjects are inscribed in the faces, and yet Rogovin manages to ennoble every tempest-tossed one of them.

The score includes songs by Pete Seeger as well as music written and performed by Bookstein himself. “It was a wonderful way to put another thumbprint on the film,” he says. “I found it cathartic and joyous. It’s also really inexpensive to license your own music.”

Born in Detroit, Bookstein, 36, moved to Berkeley as a teen. He attended Brandeis Hillel Jewish Day School, was president of the Jewish student union at the University of Oregon and lived in Israel for two years as part of a Zionist youth group. His mother, Denah Bookstein, still lives in Berkeley, while a brother is a rabbi in Long Beach.

“At a young age, I learned the way to achieve status in Jewish culture historically is through learning and tzedakah, and not through amassing wealth,” the filmmaker says of his attraction to the Rogovins’ story. “Jews in America have always been at the forefront of social justice causes, and that’s no coincidence.”

Though recognition came late, Rogovin is now considered a master of his genre. Both the Library of Congress and the Center for Creative Photography have secured his collected works, and his prints hang in galleries such as the Art Institute of Chicago.

Bookstein hopes his film will tell the world about Milton Rogovin and, more importantly to him, inspire others to seek a higher purpose.

“The more people that see it, the more that will be inspired,” he says. “One kid at a screening at a university asked me afterward, ‘What can I do?’ I said, take Milton’s example. Spend your life dedicated to a cause.”

“The Rich Have Their Own Photographers” screens at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26 at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., S.F. Also at 7:15 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $10.50. Information: (415) 820-3907 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.