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The knot in the heart

Photographer Eugene Richards has documented fates in crack environments, at emergency rooms and mental hospitals for well over 50 years. What has driven him?


Eugene Richards: The Run-on of Time
International Center of Photography,
New York City. For 20. January.

The award-winning photographer Eugene Richards sits here, at 74 years old, in front of the audience, and talks about the images in this winter's retrospective exhibition in International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York (see also video recording). He seems moody and warm – but tells us he has temperament.

In the many texts written about him, it can be read that it all started with the fact that he was once summoned to Vietnam, but sent the summons back the clip. While waiting for the reaction, he took a one-year degree in photography at Minor White at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

© Eugene Richards, Sam and Janine
Sam and Janine, © Eugene Richards.

This was the time around the killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, but what made this man spend 50 years of his life on documentary photography? Does he perhaps have this old knot in his heart that he wants to tie up – where the paradoxes, differences and fates of life prompt an existential curiosity and an urge to document? An effort to question what we perceive as injustice, abuse of power and human decay? Thus it is documented how wrong it can go for a society, and here, in the current exhibition, especially the American. But if one is to open one's heart, one must also have a drive toward beauty – or a distant ideal of a friendlier community for all.

It is possibly in the gray zone, this to photograph ...

But photographing can also, as for Richards, be about communicating personal stories. Maybe as a kind of therapy. Here he is not quite unlike the namesake William Eugene Smith, who is known for his photo essay. Both WE Smith and Robert Frank are photographers he recognizes as teachers, although he developed his own photographic style characterized by a closeness to those he photographed. These are individuals who tell of their fates, often with Richards' camera almost face-to-face. He is known for using wide-angle and short camera lenses rather than telephoto lenses, which he perceived as too distant. Those who are photographed and interviewed do not care that he is fully close-up, since he has already spent a long time with them – maybe days – before the camera was pulled out of the bag.

© Eugene Richards, Veteran
Veterans, © Eugene Richards.

His photographs can also show faces halfway through the image edge, have unusual angles or curved outer edges, which are typical of short lenses. This is deliberate, Richards said: With such partially distorted images, he will show that these are photographs, and not the whole truth. He is aware that the photographs are only a snippet of reality and time. Therefore, he prefers the fragmentary, individual fates, small and gripping stories of people, where he glides into their existence – but no more.

Simple fate

Eugene Richards
Eugene Richards from the video.

Here at the ICP, the retrospective exhibition is thematically divided, with subtitles such as "Metaphor to Document", "A Personal Vision", "American Lives and Socioeconomic Realities", "Health and Humanity" and "War and Terrorism". Curator April Watson chose such a move over a purely chronological one. And walking around the room, the black-and-white images of blacks from the southern Arkansas Delta of the United States are talking and present – such faces can be. The socio-economic conditions emerge via single destinies, where poverty and misery can bring odors into the blind alleys of substance abuse. In Arkansas, Richards also founded the Many Voices newspaper, which was published every two weeks for a couple of years, in an effort to shed light on the miserable conditions of blacks. But then they wanted him to go: This was theirs, not a white man's fight. Richards continued to work for the disadvantaged in the hometown of Dorchester, Massachusetts. The environments he sought out were often characterized by crime and violence, but as he himself said at the ICP: Some people gladly took him in and protected him. With that camera, he therefore documented the inside of the many homes he was invited into.

© Eugene Richards, Guard.
Guard, © Eugene Richards.

Richards was still the money. He therefore took commercial assignments for various magazines – up to the 70s photographers, for example, created photo series for Life and Look. From this and especially pictures they would not print – like a gay couple with their young child in the middle of the bed – he made photo collections in his own book releases.

Crack environments

Richards eventually photographed from urban crack environments, populated by black people. His pictures from there became the book and the series Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue (1994), something he was really hated by many in the 90s, and called "racist!" He was attacked in the media for showing only blacks as crack heads, many white people the same fate. Politically correct criticism? He defended himself in the New York Times, where the series had been printed, that he wanted to show the results of drug addiction, of how black blacks in particular could end up on the slant.

But the label "racist" stuck, he got a cold shoulder from most people – for a while. You do not become a legend without some wounds along the way…

Quite close

Was it in Sudan that Richards photographed a 93-year-old grandmother with her dying little granddaughter, whom she saw buried? In any case, it was in Nigeria that he found a 15-year-old girl who was unaware that she had AIDS, which led to her young child dying (see above). On the other hand, the exhibition shows Richards' wife Janine and son Sam (who sat in the hall during the lecture, now many years later), where baby and mother lie exhausted in their beds, as well as one where the same greedy little boy gets a breast – Richards glanced at when he commented on this picture.

© Eugene Richards, Woman in Congo with Children
Congo woman with children, © Eugene Richards.

But the exhibition also featured the series with Richards' ex-wife, Dorothea Lynch, whom he met already at the university, and who later developed breast cancer. She even wanted him to document this. She laughs as Richard snaps (see below) when the doctor asks if she still feels like a woman – after a breast is scraped out for cancer cells. The exhibition also has a number soundtrack – one of them can be heard on the internet, with Lynch talking about getting cancer. She dies.

Like the couple Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor (And American Exodus, 1939) Richards worked extensively with his spouses. Thus, it was later Janine Altongy who dragged him down to the tragedy on September 11, 2001, and she became the voice or text of the book Stepping Through the Ashes (Aperture, 2002). This huge loss came to the fore here with rescue workers, relatives and other Americans.

Richards has chosen in his books to supplement pictures with texts from what the photographers say, or what he or his wife adds. In the "War and Terrorism" section of the exhibit, several war veterans were interviewed, not just her youth lying in the coffin, or he with fatal injuries with bare upper body. But even the one who got his head shot away, bent over his mother. In the text that follows, she states that she has chosen to care for him, and as a mother, she never gives up. Here, Richard conveys fragments from the consequences of the war in Afghanistan or Iraq.

He has a drive to question what we perceive as wrong.

In the section "Health and Humanity" we find pictures from the time Richards stayed in an operating room in the emergency department of a hospital. He flicked a greasy corpse – something he himself raised during the presentation at the ICP, in response to a question about morality. He also drew the pictures from when he followed Doctors Without Borders, or inside a mental hospital in Mexico. The latter with such dire conditions that it was closed down after the photos were published. It is possibly in the gray zone, this to photograph the mentally retarded, who neither understands what he is doing there, nor can refuse him to use the camera.

From the heart

So where does this journey end: with color pictures of women's shoes, a burnt down church, or abandoned houses in North Dakota? No, eventually Richards began film production.

© Eugene Richards, Melvin Cook
Melvin Cook, © Eugene Richards.

The discomfort accompanies the journey, but let me mention the American Melvin Cook of the Ku Klux Klan: He is overweight and sick – now cared for by his cursing sister. Cook tells of everyone he shot, stabbed with a knife or knocked, just because they annoyed him. Well, because of his hate crime, he spent 28 of his 52 years in prison. After a single photo round, Cook wanted Richards back, and then it was filming. In front of the oppressed, it was this time the abuser who would tell her life story: "I really regret," we could hear was said, before the man in bed ended up dead (pictured).

Richards' photographs are fragments or snippets of reality.

Society's misery

From the movie.
From the movie Thy Kingdom Come.

With film, it is still the documentary that applies. In Richards' new movie Thy Kingdom Come (2018, see 5 minutes in the video), Richards recounts the misery of society – a drug-addicted woman and a black prison bird. But Richards' grip is now to use actor Javier Bardem (ex. No Country for Old Men, 2007) dressed as a priest – Richard's alter ego? – in the encounter with vulnerable human destinies. Richards deliberately put together photojournalism, documentary and art photography.

But what about the woman who died a few weeks after the filming, or the prisoner replied? Both of them were actually aware that Bardem was a well-dressed actor. Still, this was quickly forgotten or overlooked when they were given the opportunity to open their hearts.

Some are given the opportunity to tie the knot.

Richards visited Norway in 2011 at DOK: 11
(Literature House in Oslo).

Watch video: On the Run of Time

See the website of Eugene Richards

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Truls Liehttp: /www.moderntimes.review/truls-lie
Editor-in-chief in MODERN TIMES. See previous articles by Lie i Le Monde diplomatique (2003–2013) and Morgenbladet (1993-2003) See also part video work by Lie here.

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