Eugene Richards

Vision Gallery of Photography

“What I want to do is to put someone’s life on another person’s doorstep,” Eugene Richards has said. “Personal journalism is what they call it—a tradition in photography. I have no need to pretend that my concerns or the style of my photos is newly arrived in the world.” A Magnum photographer, author of stalwart monographs—Few Comforts and Surprises: The Arkansas Delta and Dorchester Days—and a Guggenheim Fellow in photography, Richards hits the bull’s-eye with his first major gallery show in Boston. The photographs have been selected from work made since 1976: some of the premier images in Dorchester Days; work done in Key West with Cuban immigrants and on news assignments to photograph dwarfs and a boxing league in South Boston; and the moving and startling hospital work of the past two years. Unlikely bedfellows, these photographs relate to each other in one crucial way—through the humanism of Gene Richards.

Richards’ taproots sink deep into human soil. He records the bitter, sad, comic, frightful, absurd and sweet moments that we all are privy to. To appreciate the breadth of his humanism and to gauge the embrace of his gentle spirit, one should view a large sampling of his work. Vignettes, often seemingly snatched from a seriocomic cinema, occur: a blindman scratching with his daddy-longlegs antenna through a mock street-hockey game; a baby squirming through the sludge of birth to breath; a girl in bulky white platform shoes confronting a chicken on her front porch; a bridal procession passing beneath the fire escapes of a brick tenement; a child cast back into a plastic wading pool, smote by a seizure.

Preconceptions are spare in Richards’ work. There is no connivance to entrap subjects in a prearranged context nor to transform them through zany camera angles or distortion lenses. His photographs give the impression that they are as untrammeled as the wind, yet in no way should they be considered accidents of vision. They are discovered on the spot, by Richards’ discerning eye and photographer’s sixth sense, forcing him to pause, listen and wait. He is a photographer whose camera is often slack at his neck or secreted deep in a coat pocket. He uses less rather than more film and would never fire a succession of desperate shots hoping to find something later on a contact sheet. An unobtrusive assurance undergirds his photographs. They are intuitively composed, brilliantly felt, events.

All of his work is shot in 35 mm, enlarged either to 11-by-14-inch or 16-by-20-inch prints. Discreetly, Richards enlarges only those images that will support an increase in size. The size is often compelling, as in the 16-by-20-inch print of two Cuban immigrants. Cut above the waist, the men are yoked together by an ominous black shadow at the heart of the photograph: the hulking presence of the photographer. The tension in the photograph is resonant. One man cocks his head in defiance, his eyes squinting in suspicion and unleashed hatred; the other seems to reel away from the shadow, his face narrow, angelic with hurt and lingering tenderness.

A portraitist of sorts, Richards creates images that possess their own authenticities. They seek naturally their own forms. Whimsy, irony, humor, pathos—all are there, allowed by him to flow at their own inspiration and intensity. Always, his art is at the service of the subject. Never is there the sense that the event has been manipulated to elevate or exploit sentiment. Never is there the sense that he has asked someone to alter his position or to sidle nearer a bar rail. Richards might move one step closer to his subject or to the side, but always with the serenity and stratagem of a pro.

Judgments about human conduct Richards is chary to make. He seeks vitality in his photographs, untutored moments. He offers us an exquisitely tuned sensibility. What he sees, what he responds to, is uncommon. It does not carry with it the crash of cymbals or a stagy drumroll, but assuredly it captures us.

There are only two nonpeople photographs in the show—one of a church cross flaming out of a misty night, the other of a vandalized pickup truck with a spidery tree looming above. It is appropriate that Richards is absorbed now in photographing people in various states of illness and recovery. From the start, his dedication has been to people. One book soon to appear is titled New Life, a visual study of his friend Dorothea Lynch as she passed under and safely out from the terrible gates of cancer. Another is being made with the cooperation of the staff of the Denver General Hospital; it depicts the daily crises and tender care of an emergency room. Both books are important to Richards. “Nongallery stuff,” he says. The subject matter may be too searing for patronage or collectible art, but in its fidelity and unblunted purpose, it is strong photojournalism.

Richards joins a line of intent photojournalists: Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith, Lee Friedlander. Some espouse causes as Hine and Smith did; others, like Frank and Friedlander, document from unique perspectives. Richards is not a causer, though he could be a redoubtable one if he chose to be. He is laid-back, watchful, sometimes offhand, but never flip or snide. Though black is often a dominant presence in his photographs, the world he presents is loveful, caring, blessed with people who experience small private joys and persist against death.

Kelley Wise