Photographer Interviews

Eugene Richards Reflects on His Job

June 2, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Eugene Richards.

The retrospective exhibition “The Run-On of Time,” opening June 10 at George Eastman Museum, features more than 150 photographs by Eugene Richards. It starts with his social documentary work from the Arkansas Delta in the 1960s, and incorporates images from select magazine assignments and from the 14 books he has published, including  Cocaine True Cocaine Blue (1994), a searing look at people caught up in the crack epidemic, and War Is Personal (2010), about veterans and their families affected by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In connection with the exhibition, the museum will screen some of the short films he has directed, and debut a longer film, Thy Kingdom Come, which Richards describes as “my interpretation of a time I worked for the filmmaker Terrence Malick.”

Curators April Watson of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City (where the show will open in December) and Lisa Hostetler of Eastman Museum worked closely with Richards to organize the exhibition and its catalogue. Watson says they hope to place Richards’s work in context, but it defies easy categorization. He was first moved to document the poverty he saw in the Arkansas Delta in the 1960s, a time when documentary photography was becoming “more subjective and more personal,” she says. While his work weaves together traditional street photography and photojournalism, Watson sees his recent “lyrical” color work as “sitting more squarely in the realm of artistic photography.” As examples, she cites the images of abandoned farmhouses he published in his 2008 book, The Blue Room, and his recent images of the Delta, which he juxtaposed with older images from the region in his 2014 book The Red Ball of the Sun Slipping Down. She says his photos have always been distinguished by his intimate connection with his subjects. In all his work, she says, “There’s still an incredible emotional immediacy that cuts right to the heart.”

Richards has recently been preoccupied by memories and how memory functions. His short documentary, The Rain Will Follow, which debuted at the Full Frame Festival in April, is about a 90-year-old North Dakota man who dreams about the landscape around his farm but who weeps at memories of acts he committed while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. The elegiac text Richards wrote for The Red Ball of the Sun Slipping Down begins with his memory of leaving Arkansas and the local woman who predicted he would never come back, then shifts to a meditation on the passage of time and all that happened in his life before he finally returned.

We asked Richards to discuss his experience of sifting through nearly 50 years of photos and memories during the planning of “The Run-On of Time.”

© Eugene Richards

“Walum, North Dakota,” 2006, from Richards’s 2008 book The Blue Room, a study of abandoned rural houses. © Eugene Richards

PDN: How did the curators work? Were you able to let the two curators, April Watson and Lisa Hostetler dig through your archive?
Eugene Richards: As I understand it, April and Lisa each culled down a broader selection of images that I had gathered together for a retrospective kind of book that I’d been planning for years. Then they discussed each of their selections over the phone and in person prior to visiting with me. They added some images, took a few out, and discussed the kind of exhibition that they wanted to do. They looked at prints that I already had in my archive, decided what sizes would work best for the show. What prints I didn’t have would need to be made.

You asked: How do you let someone in your archive? The truth is I probably should do it more often. I realized a long time ago I was a pretty shitty purveyor of my own work, because I was more socially oriented. I saw pictures as a way to call attention to the abject poverty. I didn’t see them as photographs in the way we see them now, which is in a more complex fashion, more visually, more emotionally, or prompting memories.

That’s how I ended up doing the Red Ball book, because I missed a lot of images that were better than the ones I chose for my old book [Few Comforts or Surprises, published 1973].

© Eugene Richards

“Iris, Dorchester, Massachusetts,” 1975, from Eugene Richards’s second book, Dorchester Days, about the area of Boston where he had grown up. © Eugene Richards

PDN: Is it a matter of seeing your work in a different way, or in a new context?
ER: I don’t think about it in a different way but other people do. People can talk about your work having incredible vision or whatever bullshit they throw at you, but it’s not going to cross over into the art world. To give you an example, when I did The Blue Room [Phaidon, 2008], I went to a gallery in New York. A gallerist said to me, “I don’t know if this is great art or documentary.” I said, “What’s the difference?” and she said, “If it’s documentary, we won’t show it.” I’d never heard anyone put it so keenly. Unless you’re blessed with the vision of maybe someone like Sebastião [Salgado], who is able to take tough subjects and turn them into something poetical, you’re not going to cross that border very often. So I’ve never conceived of [showing in] museums per se, where art is paramount.

Initially I took the title “The Run-On of Time” only because I feel that as a person obviously I’ve changed tremendously: You age, you lose your loved ones, you lose your parents. [But] I never made a massive change to a different way of seeing things. I hope that things have deepened a bit maybe, but as a photographer when I look at the work, I see repetitions of ideas. I think it’s because I came at a very young age into a profound culture, the Delta culture. I was not part of it, but I learned a lot and those lessons I think have been with me ever since.

PDN: There’s a lot of debate about what role beauty should play when you’re trying to convey facts, or document a serious situation.
ER: It’s a conflict all the time if you’re a social documentary photographer. I am going into situations and trying to make something visual, the idea being that if you do that, people will care about it. There’s no lying about it: You’re estheticizing a situation. We have to make some sense out of it or people won’t look at it.

PDN: I think there’s suspicion about photographs that appear to prettify a situation.
ER: I think I’ve been profoundly self-conscious [about that] for a long time. I always feel that if you do something on tough issues or troubling subjects, the photographs should trouble the people looking at them. If you’re making a photo of a tragedy, I don’t want people to be comfortable with the photographs. If you do a photograph on drugs, you can really romanticize the situation, but I’d much prefer it to be ugly, because it is ugly.

That’s what people object to. They say, “It is ugly.” Well, it is ugly.

When I did the photos with Dorothea [Lynch], people said, “They’re kind of rough.” [Richards and Lynch, his first wife, collaborated on Exploding into Life, which chronicled Lynch’s treatment for breast cancer and her approach to her impending death.]

© Eugene Richards

“Safo, Niger,” 1997, from The Fat Baby, Richards’s collection of narrative stories. © Eugene Richards

PDN: Are there bodies of work or certain images that were left out of the show or the book?
ER: It’s interesting, I have got a lot of photos but not a whole lot compared to other photographers. I realize that’s because my assignments have always been very short. I’d go to some place where you should spend a long, long time—for example Niger—but my assignment would be a week and a half. That’s all. In a week and a half, you’re just scratching. Over and over again I found that, particularly the international work, wasn’t as deep as it should be. It feels strange to me. There were three or four photos of a place and there should be a lot more.

Years ago, I used to win these journalism awards for projects that regretfully I only worked on a short time. If I’m a good photographer, it’s only because I’m a good desperate photographer. There are some people who need a lot of time. I can accomplish something quite quickly. But the downside is, the work doesn’t always have the depth I feel it should have. I have a photo from this place and that place, and to me it feels frustrating. There are places I wish I’d spent [more time].

I photographed a woman in Niger, in a place called Safo, a little town [in 1997]. I had no idea she was 82, because the average age people die there is way under 60. She had a baby, a young boy, on her back. I wanted to photograph the baby, who I thought was healthy. That was totally wrong: He was actually close to death by starvation, he just had this beautiful, fat face. I asked his great-grandmother through a translator if I could photograph them. She said: “Please do.”

This woman was so brilliant, as a storyteller and a human being. She walked seven miles to the hospital. When the baby died, she walked seven miles back. It was 120 degrees. She buried the baby herself. At the end of the whole thing—she’d never seen a newspaper or anything—she said, “You’re leaving the village, I would like you to take a picture of a fat baby.” She meant she wanted her village to be remembered as having a fat baby, not a dying baby. They found this kid, a little plump beast. She put him on her lap.

When I was ready to leave, I said, “I gotta go home.” She looked at me and said, “At your age, you’ve got old parents. I’ll come with you now because I can’t take care of the children now. I can’t run after them. So I’ll take care of your parents.” She just wanted to be of service, and she would have left her village right then and there. It was heartbreaking to say to her: You can’t come with me.

PDN: I’ve often heard you talk about how hard it is to leave the people you meet.
ER: I think that’s inherent in certain photography. Again, it sounds so Pollyanna. People give all these awards for stories photographers do. But you can never get it out of your mind that you can leave a situation.

When I went to Beirut to cover the war there, I couldn’t get over the fact that in the daytime, we’d watch people literally starving and then at night in the hotel we’d eat a French meal—with wine. I couldn’t take it.

You have limited time. You meet people, and sometimes you resist liking them or even understanding them. Understanding them is harder than liking them. Once you understand them, you realize quite honestly that your pictures aren’t quite sufficient and once you understand that your pictures aren’t quite sufficient, then it’s time to leave. You’d like to say, “I can stay, I can afford to stay,” but the magazine wants you to come home.

“Leaving” is probably a better title for the show. If I were going to do a retrospective on my own, “Leaving” is probably not a bad title.

PDN: How do you think you’re likely to be remembered?
ER: This is my job. I’d be content if people said, “He did his job.” And that I wasn’t an asshole.


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