Via John Laxmi
One of my favorite documentary photographers – Eugene Richards – has an exhibit now through May 8 at the Leica Gallery in New York City. Read Vicki Goldberg's article in today's New York Times.
April 18, 2004
Photojournalism Without Apologies
By VICKI GOLDBERG
‘Fat Baby and Other Tales'
Leica Gallery, 670 Broadway at Bond Street. Through May 8.
WHILE photography blossoms and spreads unchecked in the art galleries, photojournalism and documentary photography generally shiver in a winter of discontent. Outlets for photojournalism, in decline in this country since the demise of the weeklies Life and Look in the early 70's, continue to shrink in favor of celebrity portraiture. War and its surrogates are the only other expanding areas for photojournalists. Documentary photographs are accused of lying and documentary photographers of exploitation, condescension, pandering and related unsavory activities. Yet they continue to try to report the world as it is or as they see it, some hoping to change it, some struggling with doubts they harbored long before the critics arrived.
Eugene Richards, 59, one of the most respected American photojournalists, has photographed a couple of circles of Dante's hell and come back to tell the tale. In spite of all his experience, he says that, in fact, he never trusted photography. You won't catch him saying the medium is truth, or that it's nuanced, or gives people room to change dramatically or, in the end, that it's enough. Photography can let the ideas loose and start the discussion, but he doesn't believe you can change anything, though you do the best you can. In a recent interview he remarked that the crack addicts in “Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue,” his 1994 show and book, “did what they were going to do all along — they died.”
That this is the view of a man at the top of his profession gives an idea of the difficulties photographers can face when confronting situations in need of repair. Still, he has never stopped. Evidence of his perseverance can be seen at the Leica Gallery on lower Broadway in “Eugene Richards: Fat Baby and Other Tales,” which presents 52 black-and-white images from three of his books.
There are glimpses here of mental and physical illness, teenage gangs and drug busts, as well as of marriage, birth, gay love and old age — a gamut from bleak to dire, with a few detours into tenderness and joy. “The Fat Baby,” a new book from Phaidon, includes some unpublished photo essays and has a number of less taut and clamorous images — a few that merely mark time, a few that strain for effect. (The book's title comes from the chapter about famine in Niger.)
Mr. Richards's camera cuts a rude fragment from a scene, finding a jagged piece that concentrates its emotional force. He has honed a style that mirrors — with disjunctions, displacements, extreme croppings, surprises and surprising angles, and sometimes an almost unbearable in-your-face closeness — the shattered or merely alienated lives he often observes.
For instance: in the center of the floor of a Mexican mental institution a long puddle of urine advances toward us; there are legs and silhouettes beside it and the reflection of a man in its middle. In a picture from Boston in 1975, the lower half of a boy leaping across a gap on his bike hangs down from the top edge of the frame just above a scribbled sign that says “Kill Niggers.” In Africa, an ancient woman, seen from waist to shoulder in profile, has the wrinkled skin of an elephant and a pendulous breast. She is carrying her grandson on foot for miles to save his life.
Mr. Richards can also adroitly register the evanescent signs of happiness, sorrow and exhaustion: the moment when a pregnant woman's eyes grow wide as she listens to her baby's heartbeat through a stethoscope; the shell-shocked eyes of a nurse in an emergency room; his first wife in the hospital, laughing despite the black scar from surgery for breast cancer, which would ultimately kill her.
If such disturbing images, as highly personal and as jarring as they are, have a vaguely familiar look, that is partly because, from the early 1970's on, Mr. Richards made the style so powerfully expressive that scores of young photojournalists followed him. His work can strike sparks; in 1994 “Cocaine True” practically lit a fire. A black media watchdog group accused Mr. Richards of being bigoted. He had few defenders; he recalls that it was “a kind of lonely year.” He finally met with the group's representatives and convinced them that when he was photographing a subject like crack he just didn't notice anyone's color.
Two of the addicts later got clean and invited him to their wedding; similarly, an elderly doctor he photographed has become a kind of surrogate father. Sometimes the photographs are aggressively intimate, as in the view of one eye, the nose and mouth of a crack addict who is missing a number of teeth and holds a needle between those she still has, or the close-up of a man leaning atop his new baby to kiss his wife, still evidently shocked by the birth experience.
Mr. Richards says he can get so close because people can tell he's not judgmental. And, he says, “my biggest problem is I'm so uninteresting that all these people forget I'm around.” While he was photographing a 17-year-old pregnant woman and her boyfriend, they would quarrel and throw rocks at each other and even start to make love — at which point he would get out, certain her father would murder him if he caught him there.
He does tend to fade into the woodwork: slight, nearly bald, with a shaved monk's tonsure and a thin beard and mustache, glasses, a voice so quiet it is barely audible at times, and an unassuming, receptive manner. This is not the expected kit bag of someone who has found his way into a crack den, the home of a child abuser and the operating room in a remote Serbian hospital. But he started down this path as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, studying with the master photographer Minor White while waiting to be carted off to prison. Unexpectedly, he was offered the option of volunteering for Vista, a social service organization, in Arkansas, where civil rights were words you didn't bother saying out loud.
He photographed, wrote for a small newspaper and ran a day-care program. Vista sent two black women — he's white — to help him at the center. He wrote to say they couldn't do that; they said that was a racist remark. Eventually he was beaten so badly he suffered massive seizures and lost “an entire archive” of his memory, which he says he has replaced with stories, because everyone needs memories. For a while he was addicted to phenobarbital to prevent the seizures, giving him some sense of the power of drugs.
Photographing the down side is a hard way to make a living and has steadily become harder. Photo essays, Mr. Richards's métier, have nearly vanished as publications demand a grand-slam picture to do it all at one blow. Sixteen years ago, when he was already happily remarried and his son was newly born, his year's income was $8,000. “When you're a creative person,” he says, “you don't notice how little you're making.” Most years he makes from $20,000 to $50,000 after expenses. Advertising work and occasional grants free him to photograph as he wants. Many documentary photographers do commercial work or teach to supplement their incomes.
His own parents struggled financially and quarreled constantly, mostly about money. As a boy in Dorchester, Mass., he would try to break the television set so that they would be mad at him rather than at each other. “You can grow up angry,” he says, “and you have to find some way to express it.” He thinks about this. “Being a social critic is a way of getting all the anger out.” When he's working, he says, everything's alive, all his feelings are alive, he gets upset but keeps going; he does his job. Any real distress hits him later.
He speculates that his early awareness of struggle is one part of what drives him to make his kind of pictures, though no one can quite pin down what makes a photographer seek out nursing homes and blind men and babies dying of AIDS to make them somehow beautiful, somehow comprehensible, somehow visible to those who were not there and would not, perhaps even could not, look if Gene Richards did not show the way.