JTF (just the facts): A total of 136 black-and-white and color photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against light grey walls in a series of connected gallery spaces on both floors (main and basement) of the museum. The exhibit includes 113 gelatin silver prints, made between 1968 and 2008, and 23 chromogenic prints, made between 2004 and 2014, as well as 3 vitrines with newspapers, brochures, books, maquettes, and various found objects. (Installation shots below.)
The show was previously on view at the George Eastman Museum from June 10 to October 22, 2017 (here), and at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art from December 9, 2017 to April 15, 2018 (here). It was jointly curated by Lisa Hostetler and April M. Watson. A catalog of the exhibit was published in 2017 by the George Eastman Museum (here) and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (no book link), and is being distributed by Yale University Press (here). (Cover shot below.)
Comments/Context: A slow, deliberate walk through the Eugene Richards retrospective now on view at the International Center of Photography is a bracing, moving, and sometimes disheartening experience. It places before our eyes, with a level of honesty that is often bold and challenging, parts of our collective lives that we’d rather not face – poverty, drug addiction, disease, aging, racism, the consequences of war, and the breakdown of families, among many other ills that plague us. And if Richards’ photographs weren’t so consistently eloquent and compassionate, such a stark parade of tragedy would likely be unbearable.
But coming at a time when our mistrust of stories, viewpoints, and alternate perspectives is running high and truth is being actively transformed into a relative rather than an absolute concept, the exhibit provides evidence of a possible way forward through the fog of fake news and questionable facts that currently confuses us. It asks that we step back from broad abstractions, overly easy received conclusions, and standard talking points, and instead force ourselves to look at the very specific lives of individuals who have names, and homes, and personal struggles. It requires that we pay attention, exercise patience, and listen with intensity and empathy. This is what Eugene Richards has been doing for the better part of the past five decades, and his photographs tell richly complicated and often unsettling stories that reach far beyond the simplistic approximations of the headlines.
While Richards has published more than a dozen photobooks across his career, this is his first true museum retrospective, and its roughly chronological but also thematic organization chunks his many bodies of work into easily understood (and not too large) sections. His personal artistic journey can then be set against the wider backdrop of the changing world of documentary photography, where the slow demise of the picture magazines (and their tightly controlled photo essays) gave way to a new kind of socially-driven work (both editorial assignments and personal projects) where visual stories of human lives could be told with more nuance, subjectivity, and engagement. This approach fits neatly into an artistic trendline that follows from Robert Frank’s astringent vision of mid 1950s America and reaches to the trust-based long term projects of Danny Lyon and Bruce Davidson in the following decades.
Richards’ unique brand of social documentary photography brings together an open willingness to take on controversial subjects with determined purpose, a measured process built on a foundation of personal interaction and intimacy, and an eye for the layered lyricism to be found amid the inevitable complexity. Compositionally, this vision led to pictures that bring us inside the torque of immediate circumstances, where Richards’ wide angle lens broadens the frame and skews the viewing angle so that single frame stories can play out with multiple points of entry and balance. Unlike an arms-length or aloof perspective, this vantage point makes it clear that the photographer is undeniably present, regardless of how tension filled or emotionally messy the situation seems to be. A Richards photograph is a visceral experience, where raw directness meets something hidden that might be called grace.
The show takes us on a wide ranging trip, from rural Arkansas and working class Dorchester, Massachusetts, to a frantic (and wearied) hospital emergency room in Denver and the desolate roads of South Dakota. He wades into the complexities of crack addiction in Brooklyn and North Philadelphia, the treatment of patients at psychiatric hospitals in Mexico and Paraguay, and the mournful aftermath of 9/11 in New York city. He tells hauntingly personal stories of families broken, babies born, elders abandoned, and even his own wife’s battle with breast cancer.
At each and every turn, the national, cultural, or social issue Richards is exploring is transformed into the compassionately told story of a single individual, and when we then meet five, or ten, or fifteen families each facing the same larger problem in their own way, the abstraction (or the tragedy) takes on the round feeling of lived reality. In his hands, individual battles large and small are infused with a sense of tender heroism, and the contemplative slowness that Richards has applied to these relationships allows the quieter subtleties of those lives to come to the surface.
Given the visual bluntness with which Richards has often tackled hard issues, it is not surprising that he has encountered more than his fair share of controversy and criticism over the years. But when we step back from the intense emotions that surround the kinds of issues Richards has decided to photograph, we are able to better recognize the astonishingly consistent care with which he has practiced his craft.
Again and again as I passed through the many rooms in this exhibit, I had the feeling of being mightily impressed to find yet another gathering of images that so poignantly engaged any given topic – aesthetic sophistication and compositional complexity like this, delivered over so many decades and in so many different contexts and situations, isn’t an accident. Richards’ pictures never presume to offer answers, but the richness of the forces he stops for just an instant are enough to undermine the stereotypes and assumptions that we too often take for granted. He tries to educate us with depth and care, making the contradictions apparent and leaving us to fend for ourselves in drawing conclusions.
A visit to this retrospective can be a draining experience, with moments of human joy and triumph balanced by deeper and more persistent strains of melancholy and pain. But perhaps that bit of required energy is the corrective we need to remind ourselves what active engagement demands – if these pictures don’t provoke some discussion then perhaps we haven’t been paying enough attention. As photographs, Richards’ images are nearly always impassioned and deeply heartfelt; as documents of the complex pressure points of our times, they kick more strongly in the gut.
Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Eugene Richards is represented by Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago (here). Richards’ work has little secondary market history in the past decade, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.