The George Eastman Museum in Rochester will open the first museum retrospective of the work of the photographer Eugene Richards on June 10. The exhibit, “Eugene Richards: The Run-On of Time,” covers his career as a photojournalist and documentary photographer from 1968 to the present and was produced in collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Curated by April Watson and Lisa Hostetler, the retrospective includes 146 photographs, 15 books, and selected videos. It is accompanied by a catalog distributed by Yale University Press.
Mr. Richards spoke with James Estrin about the exhibit and his career. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
I was surprised to hear that this was your first museum retrospective.
The museum world has quite a high border fence.
If you’re an artist then your intention is to make art. And if you have other objectives, then there are all kinds of divisions that separate out social documentary from what usually goes in museums.
Are these divisions reconcilable? Are you either an artist or a documentarian?
As a child, art was always something that was otherworldly or outside of my experience. To me the museum was just magic. I would go to a museum and look at one picture for the whole time. I remember my first adventure to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where there was a kind of Venus sculpture. And I’d never touched marble before, so I touched this statue and I remember the guard throwing me out. Now I realize this was a female figure, but I was a little boy and to me it was just all those odd wondrous shapes and marble.
The division has been there for ever and ever. If I brought my work today to MoMA they would give it back to me. Literally hand it right back.
Is documentary photography art?
I’ll just skip over the art thing and tell you that looking back at my whole body of work for the exhibit I confess I was a little bit taken aback by my own work. I never thought of it as rough as it really is. I’ve lived this life, met these people — and a lot of people I’ve photographed I’m still in touch with.
When I look at it now I realize, some of this stuff is pretty rough and more emotional than I remember it to be. I understand how people who think of art as something meditative and calm and elevating in a classic way could find the work disturbing.
I really don’t know what I feel about the work yet. Some of it I’m very happy about. There’s about 25 percent to 30 percent of the pictures in there that I’m very disappointed in, that could have been better.
After 40 years, I went back into my archive of Arkansas pictures when I was doing the “Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down” book (2014) and realized that all of the pictures that I like today I missed entirely back then. Partially because they were terrible negatives — badly processed with the dust of the delta on them. But I didn’t see them because I wasn’t looking. I was looking at the social reality of people living in poverty, and I missed the ones with layers.
So your perception of things changes. I’m an old boy, and I see things very differently. Good or bad.
How did you start photographing?
I probably began my photographic life by looking at magazines like Life magazine. I don’t remember what the actual images were.
My photography began with liking the camera before liking what it could do. I lived in Quincy, Mass., and saw a pretty shiny camera in a store. My mom cleaned houses and my dad was a house painter, so they couldn’t afford it. But my mother asked me what I wanted for my birthday and she went out and bought this used camera for me.
I had a summer job at that time painting yellow barrels on the side of the road. It was effortless. I would paint my barrels and then walk across into the woods and take pictures of leaves and ponds. It was peaceful and I was filled with a sense of wonder. The slides came back and they were awful pictures but I just remember the simplicity of seeing things and enjoying things. And also the disappointment of it.
I got to a point where I knew the photograph wasn’t a direct line to the experience. The experience felt stronger than the photos. You couldn’t capture the feeling of being with the tree. But you could try.
Have you gotten better at capturing experiences?
No. Naturally you get more skills. But the danger with more skills is you have to be very careful that your skill doesn’t out-reach what you are really feeling. We as photographers have kind of preordained ideas about what everything is — from happiness to tragedy. Look at the media, and happiness is clothing, cars or kisses, which is not necessarily happiness, and sadness isn’t necessarily the grieving mother over the casket. But as you get more adept at a language, sometimes you fall into cliché.
What do you do to try to capture what things really are?
In some respects I have a bit more of a filmmaking sensibility than a photographer’s. I don’t wholly believe in a single image. Though I do get close. You work really hard at it — and there’s a lot of luck involved — but I always feel that I’ve got a piece of it but there’s no absolute takeaway.
Why do you photograph?
Some people have a very ordained life and they grow up in certain families and are pushed to achieve in certain directions. In my case I wanted to go to art school, my father thought that was a bad idea because he was worried that as a very poor man once himself, I wouldn’t be able to make a living. So I ended up going into general studies, which I think was good for me. I studied history and got involved in the movement against the Vietnam War.
It’s all circumstances. I sent back my draft card and told them I couldn’t serve. Waiting for them to come get me (for some reason they never did), I took photography courses with Minor White at M.I.T. because I had nothing better to do. That sounds like not a very good reason, but it’s true. I wanted to do something wild and I wanted to make things. Minor forced me to slow down and look at beauty for it’s own sake. In the end that forced me to look at life in a more balanced way.
It’s a lot of chance in my life and I think in most of our lives. So I ended up a photographer. If I’d had my druthers, if I’d had that mind-set, I probably would have been a writer. What stopped me is I ended up working as a lowly copy boy at The Boston Globe around 1965.
I worked in the copy room, pulling off stories from the wire machines. You get the paper and bring them out to the copy desk. And these were the unhappiest looking men I’ve ever seen in my life. They’d been sitting at that desk for 30 years. I had no idea what to do with my life, but I knew it wasn’t going to be that.
So you decided not to be a writer because the copy editors were unhappy?
I was reading Faulkner and Hemingway and the old classics I was both in awe and highly intimidated. I thought of myself as a better reader than writer. Curiously, I was a very shy young person and I didn’t feel I had it in me to be a reporter.
People who write 5,000 words a day, make you feel like you’re about the most impotent creature on earth. In fact writing is a huge amount of torture for most of us, and good writers will tell you it takes an amazing amount of courage to face that page.
I think I felt that I could control that photographic world better than the written world. But there’s a certain sense of regret about it. If I had the resources at that time to think about the film world, that would have been probably the proper combination of skills.
Why do you photograph today?
There’s a certain pleasure in it, and horror at the same time.
Why do I keep going? If you’re going to be quote “creative” you’ve got to keep moving. Most of us who make things, we don’t stop.
You do your job, you go home, you try to have your family. But in your mind, there’s what’s coming tomorrow. Sometimes you love it, sometimes you hate it. I can’t say I always love what I’m doing. But stasis is very deadly. And not doing it is very, very troubling.
Many of the subjects you’ve chosen over your life to photograph are painful. If you look at your large projects it’s not that happy a world.
I think certain people have more of an affinity for certain things.
There is also a darkness. It’s almost like — feeling most comfortable when it’s slightly rainy out. Sometimes it’s accidents, too. When you’re a working journalist it’s the editors who determine your life. They think you can do certain jobs and then assign you this kind of work.
I prefer birth to death. I like to drink and laugh, and I like to get laid like everybody else.
Editors may not realize you can do something else, but it’s also what you chose to do.
But maybe it isn’t the subject matter as much as the experience. The street gang for example, it wasn’t the tragedy of the street gang. Even today when people photograph street gangs, you see the same photos — like kids showing you their tattoos or their guns.
But can you get beneath the surface because the surface is well documented. If there’s any pleasure in it, if I have any skill at all, it’s getting a little bit beneath the subject matter that’s usually covered.
One thing that always impressed me about your work is how, starting with your “Dorchester Days” book, you combine this really personal visual sense with documentary motives.
People say I was influenced by William Klein. Later Robert Frank influenced me. I can’t say how much this impacted me. I think it was more a distrust of the iconic image that I developed. Even in my own photographs. When I did that first book (“Few Comforts or Surprises”) I looked at it and I wasn’t crazy about it.
I remember at the time you said you hated the book.
Probably so. I hated the cover image. It’s a little girl tossing her head back and forth. In my head it was just about these little girls tossing a white doll’s head back and forth — which is really what it should have been about. But the picture became this iconic racial photograph.
It’s still my favorite picture. And it embarrasses me because I never intended it to be an iconic image. I’ve come to dislike — it sounds strange — iconic images because they hide so much. Eddie Adams’s Saigon execution picture is a naturally great antiwar statement, but it wasn’t his intention.
We take these pictures that sometimes get away from us. So when I photographed in Dorchester, I tried to make the pictures that were as momentary as possible.
You’re not interested in easy images. When “Dorchester Days” came out (1978) I looked at the images with my mouth open, unable to understand how you could make a documentary photograph like that.
I’m always a bit of a social worker because that’s where I came out of, but on the other hand, I’m always the person who just loves seeing. And they’re not always comfortable together.
Maybe part of me secretly wanted to be a little bit like Minor White, who lived his life seeing it as a spiritual existence, but I couldn’t get rid of the social worker. And I think that’s been always the case, it’s been a clash going on.
I do just love trying to see things in the way that I see them.
I grew up with crossed eyes. Later I went to a doctor, and he said, you have crossed eyes and you really don’t have any proper depth perception. I said, that’s ridiculous. I’ve been a photographer for all these years. So he put these 3-D glasses on me and I realized that he was right. I see things much better when I’m close. I get kind of confused at a distance.
And you always shot close mainly with a 35-millimeter and 24-millimeter lens.
The drug book, “Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue,” was all done with a 21 millimeter.
People have said that using a 21 was a brave choice. No, I actually see that way. That’s kind of disappointing, right?
What did you learn from doing such a deep dive on your archive?
I think you recognize a sensibility that’s been there from the beginning — in some ways it’s a positive thing, in some ways it’s not. But more or less there’s a continuum to it.
I’ve always been a pretty modest photographer in terms of the numbers of images I make. I think I’m less prolific in mere volume because I’m always tangled up with curiosity and language. I spend more time talking to people than I do photographing them.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I shied away from retrospectives. It does open you up to introspection, and that’s a good thing and a troubling thing.
Because photographs are memories — that’s what they really are. I don’t have a great memory for a lot of things, but I have a curiously precise memory of what it felt like taking those photographs — the circumstances around them. My emotional state or what was going on at that particular time.
I see the pictures of Dorothea [Mr. Richards’s first wife], and I’m back with her when we were young, and then I’m back with her when she was close to passing away. Or I see pictures of Janine a few years later at the beginning of our relationship. And my son, Sam, as a little baby, and think of the things you do right and wrong in raising kids.
So it’s loaded. It’s not so much the photographs but kind of a life journey — and it’s time for that. I’ve done a lot of books and they’ve been somewhat personal, but this is the first time I’ve been pushed into this corner.
source”times of india”