Eugene Richards; Personal Documents Of Our World

The low, harsh light of late day played unmercifully on the withered body of an old woman, reflecting on the face of the beautiful baby she carried on her back. Eugene Richards saw the tall, angular 80-year-old woman, a rare sight in a drought-ridden land where people die long before their time.

"I was conscious of using my camera," Richards says. "I knew this was a women's community. There was little water and no longer any work for men. I asked if I could photograph the baby but expressed my concern to the woman that she was partially uncovered."

"At my age it doesn't matter," she said as she dropped the cloth from her shoulder. "Here I am."

"And I made the photograph."

Child and mother with AIDS, Safo, Niger, 1997 (from "The Fat Baby").
All Photos © 2005, Eugene Richards, All Rights Reserved

The woman had walked seven miles to the hospital and the baby died that night of chronic malnutrition. Now she would carry the lifeless child the seven miles home. It was 120Þ.

"I went to the service in the little community where they buried the baby," Richards recalls. "The old woman came up to me and asked if I would take one more picture."

"I want a picture of me with a fat baby," she said. "I don't want you to go home only representing us with a dying baby."

"It was the last picture I took in Niger, Africa."

Published by Phaidon, The Fat Baby became the title of Richards' most recent book, a powerful documentary of the many lives he has touched. The photographs are damp with tears but colored with integrity and touch on familiar themes from the moment of birth to the tears of old age, to joy and to loss, and to people and places we will never see.

Morning chores, Virgin, Utah, 1995 (from "The Wore-out Farm").

One of the great social documentary photographers of our era, Richards and his work are one. He is always deeply involved. He shows us a young Sicilian woman moments after she has given birth, holding the infant to her as tears of joy slide down her cheeks. Her husband bends to kiss her, still draped in his surgical gown. The photograph, part of the "American Family" series, was done for Life magazine.

Emotions ran high as Richards documented the joint parenting of two gay couples. The series titled "Here's to Love" borders on the edge and the magazine assignment became history when Richards photographed the innocent picture of the baby in a bathtub with one of the men.

"The editor said the baby was learning sexuality from the father," Richards tells us, "and I tried to make a point to this editor asking, `Well, what did you learn about sexuality from your parents? Probably about as much as I did--nothing!'"

Newly born, Washington, DC, 1990 (from "The Next Step").

Quiet spoken but feisty--that's Eugene Richards. He came up the hard way in a loving but somewhat dysfunctional family who stirred an anger and confusion within him as he wandered around taking pictures.

In college he studied with Minor White. "I was wired to him and his idea of teaching in a lot of ways," Richards says. "It was more in a spirit of meditation and study I found totally insane--like the worst of going to church! In retrospect, it became a whole different world that I came to treasure. White taught me to look at light and to slow down and see things in a more meditative fashion, to become more involved."

Richards admits he may not be responding just to the moment. "Photography is changing," he says, "especially photojournalism. It is said that it is becoming more illustrative. You can use a picture of a person to represent a situation and photos are becoming more metaphorical, less specific. There's more blur, more abstraction. I try to make my photographs of who the person is, to capture their own emotion at that time."

There are occasions when Richards resorts to old-fashioned, hard-core brutal reporting such as the series he shot in Mexico while working with a human rights group. He photographed a men's psychiatric ward, the emptiness and the barely clad inmates alongside a pool of urine cascading through the center of his frame. It was only 48Þ there and the men were getting cold showers poured from a bucket.

"I took those photographs in 11/2 hours," Richards says. "You just keep moving in situations like that. You can't stop because you would really get upset. Mental illness is too close to everybody. Nobody wants to lose their mind. They fear that more than they fear dying."

Richards does not make many happy pictures, but for those of us who have experienced living with the dementia of a family member we can empathize as he photographs an elderly woman looking intently as she tries to recognize the face of her husband. He wonders, who has control of us at the end of our life? What rights do the elderly have to determine their own destiny?

Night before a cop's funeral, Philadelphia, 1996 (from "Tommy Clarke").

In the mid-1990s Richards was on assignment for Newsweek about the rising homicide rates due to drugs.


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