Getting his lens close to get the humanity

“Wonder Bread, Dorchester, MA., 1975.” Photo by Eugene Richards

BY NORMAN BORDEN | Eugene Richards wants you to see life as he experienced it over the past 50 years. And — as a powerful retrospective of his work now at the International Center of Photography Museum makes very clear — his experience has rarely been a series of pretty pictures.

Poverty, drug addiction, prejudice, mental illness, family and war and terrorism are just some of the social issues Richards has explored from the early 1970s to the present; his commitment to raising social awareness and exposing the unvarnished truth about complex subjects has made him one of the most respected social-documentary photographers of his generation.

The some 150 images and four short films in the exhibition have been organized thematically under gallery headings, including “American Lives and Socioeconomic Realities”; “Health and Humanity”; “Family”; “War & Terrorism”; and “Time & Change”, among others. 

Despite the diversity of subjects, the photographer’s intrusive style is a common thread. Influenced by W. Eugene Smith and Robert Frank, Richards has added his own intense and intimate approach to social-documentary photography.

With his camera often literally in his subject’s face, he admits to being “very conscious of what it means to go into someone’s house and take very private moments away in pictures. The responsibility of the photographer is to respect people while — and this is most important —utilizing all your skills to reveal something true about their lives and their humanity,” Richards explains.

By taking the time — which could take days or weeks to get to know his subjects before he picks up his camera — Richards has created a body of work that is honest, realistic and sometimes brutal. Many images — whether of a strung-out crack head or the inside of a men’s psychiatric ward, or an ER doctor privately grieving over the loss of a patient — make you wonder, “How did he get so close?”

“Still House Hollow, Tennessee, 1986.” Photo by Eugene Richards

As the artist said in a magazine interview, “There’s a process and a means of getting to know people and getting them to trust you. But I’m always aware that I’m visiting — that I am there, that I have a responsibility, but I’m intrusive.”

Richards was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1944. He graduated from Northeastern University, then took a graduate photography course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology taught by celebrated photographer Minor White.

In 1968, aiming to avoid the Vietnam draft, he joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service To America), a government antipoverty program. He was promptly sent to Arkansas to work as a social worker and newspaper reporter. A social activist, he helped establish a biweekly newspaper, Many Voices, that covered issues like voter registration and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Provoked by the blatant racism and abject poverty he saw around him, Richards began documenting the daily lives of African-Americans.

“I started photographing very tentatively and very nervously because these were people I didn’t know, and they sure as hell didn’t know me,” he said.

But by becoming familiar with his subjects, he achieved a level of intimacy that has distinguished his work throughout his career. One early example is “Reverend and Mrs. Landers, Hughes, Arkansas, 1969.” The couple sit quietly in their bedroom, seemingly oblivious to the bald white photographer standing in front of them. His experiences in the Deep South became his first book, “Few Comforts or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta” (1973).  In the introduction, he wrote, “In the ragged Delta towns, police, storekeepers, Klansmen, judges and raucous old politicos conspire to maintain the old racial patterns, while barren promises of repatriation and deliverance are made by people playing the game.”

Returning to his hometown, Dorchester, Richards photographed life in the working-class neighborhood where he’d grown up, documenting its racial tensions and people living on the edge.

“The old neighborhood isn’t the same as it was,” he wrote. “It’s more run-down, more foreboding, a brooding mix of old-timers and immigrants of working-class aspirations and grinding poverty that everyone believes will explode someday.”

One example is the image “Wonder Bread, Dorchester, MA. 1975”; a child with his arms intertwined in a casual gesture is juxtaposed with a crumbling brick wall displaying an advertisement for “Wonder Bread,” promising, “Builds Strong Bodies 12 ways.”

Richards’s decision to self-publish “Dorchester Days” in 1978 proved to be life-changing. Magnum Photo invited him to become a member, and he gained various freelance magazine assignments.

Sadly, his wife, Dorothea Lynch, was diagnosed with breast cancer that same year and, at her request, he began to document her battle with the disease until she died in 1983. Their co-authored book about her struggle, “Exploding into Life,” was published in 1986.

“PTSD, McHenry, Illinois, 2014.” Photo by Eugene Richards

Richards’s projects about poverty, crime and hard-core drug addiction are in a section of the exhibit called, “American Lives and Socioeconomic Realities.” He intrudes on rural people, city folk and gangster types to raise social awareness. He shows us aspects of life we don’t want to see or never even knew existed. For example, in the stunning image “Still House Hollow, Tennessee, 1986,” a teenager or young man is either sleeping or passed out in an old truck, with his head resting in the steering wheel — and through the filthy, scratched windshield, we see a bare-chested, skinny teenager sprawled out on the truck’s hood.

A more contemporary view of economic hardship is seen in “Trailer Park, Bartlesville, Oklahoma, 2010.” In one of the few color photographs in the exhibition, Richards was somehow able to photograph a mother’s half-naked butt as her child and the father look directly at the camera. One possible explanation for this intrusive, intimate perspective is his belief: “Ironically, it’s the process of becoming not there as you possibly can, if you hang around long enough, people don’t care.” In any case, photographing in color adds reality and another dimension to this troubling picture.

Richards is not a war photographer per se, but in his projects on view in “War and Terrorism,” he shows the aftermath. After 9/11, Richards photographed Ground Zero from various perspectives and with great sensitivity; a firefighter in the World Trade Center’s rubble; decayed posters of the missing; and a dust-covered snow globe of the Twin Towers. His more recent (2006 – 2014) images of wounded Iraq War veterans and their families are painful. In “Sergeant Pequēno with his mother, West Roxbury, Massachusetts, 2008,” the cost of war is tragically clear: A mother is seen hugging her son with a traumatic head injury; the photo caption says she is “prodding him to work on some kind of recovery,” although he has lost significant parts of his skull and brain. I can only wonder how Richards gained the mother’s trust to make this sad picture.

In the color image, “PTSD, McHenry, Illinois, 2014,” no physical injury is seen on this tattooed veteran — but he may be hiding it, as well as his emotional state, behind a big cloud of smoke from his e-cigarette. It’s a revealing photograph, dog and all.

Although Richards has taken an up-close-and-personal approach to the plight of people throughout his career, he took a detour of sorts in his series “The Blue Room.” From 2004 to 2006, Richards took several trips to the upper Midwest to explore the impact of the rural population moving into urban areas. Unlike his other work, there are no people in sight in these evocative pictures. No one is hiding — they are gone; they left. Even so, a human presence is still felt in the color landscape portraits of deserted, dilapidated homes and snow-covered fields.

In “Corinth, North Dakota, 2006,” for example, a broken window has allowed snow to drift onto a bed. It’s just a beautiful photograph, with Richards using color to symbolize impermanence and the passage of time.

The power of this exhibition confirms Eugene Richards’s status as a photographer for the ages. He has established himself in the pantheon of photographers who have made a difference. Cornell Capa, the founding father of ICP, once said, “Richards is a concerned photographer and his work is honest without a doubt.” See for yourself.

“Eugene Richards: The Run-On of Time,” Sept. 27 to Jan. 6, at the International Center of Photography (ICP) Museum, 250 Bowery, at Stanton St. For more information, visit .

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