Eugene Richards

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Eugene Richards is a first-class American photographer and arguably one of the best photojournalists in the world. Richards’ images are so gritty, so bare, so magical; real life becomes stranger than fiction. He ingenuously exposes parts of humanity, which evidence wickedness, hopelessness and abandonment, which are conveyed so up-front and candidly they become somewhat fanciful. Can it really be possible to point a camera inches away from a crack addict shooting up? For Richards it can.

Richards’ fearlessness and persistence to document such diverse and disturbing issues is admirable. His work credits not only him as a powerful artist but also as a humanitarian. Richard’s images, in all their brutal yet inspired grandeur, aren’t to just build his portfolio but to evidence things which most of us cannot see. Each image is a piece of evidence, a piece of truth to evoke change and raise awareness. We are not all as brave as Richards is to get that close to such difficult subjects, which is why his images are so poignant and important. Inspiring, candid and diverse, Richard’s images are truly ones I would love to emulate in both style and subject.

‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’ is an extensive reportorial on the impact of crack cocaine in three Eastern cities of America. Aesthetically the images are black and white and posses a rawness which isn’t entirely due to the subject within them. That little bit of grain, ‘closer then you think’ and filmic element reinforces that evidential, authentic quality; each image a document worthy of being used as undeniable proof to the world over.

The images are shocking and at times extremely difficult to view. For me it’s the images of the characters complete disregard, fearlessness and dependence of what they’re doing to themselves. Like the man on his knees in his kitchen, it’s almost holy, like the drug is all he lives for. The images which involve children also disturb me, an innocent life caught up in a horrific situation. It’s like we’re witnessing the goings on of the walking dead: aimless and insane, wondering through life only looking for their next feed. We witness a group of people completely infatuated by a substance, which is killing them as they decay before our very eyes. It’s uncomfortable. I feel almost claustrophobic looking through the images. Some shots are so close to the subjects, they’re almost too close; I imagine their breath and moisture steaming up Richards’ lenses, their smell, their voices, the smoke. It’s haunting. This is particularly true with the image of an addict with a syringe in his mouth. That sense of crazy, delusional, no sense of time, space or life, is scary, completely lost in the substance resting in his mouth. The expression in his eyes is insane, encompassing addiction and the fellow within it astoundingly. Also, the image of the face engulfed by smoke, it’s closing in on you and uncomfortable, like there’s no escape. How Richards’ managed to get so close to such characters is beyond me but something I’m encouraged to do.

In class we were shown a video of Eugene Richards talking about his project, ‘Blue Room’, which evidences what a great storyteller as well as his diversity in abundance. Richards is softly spoken and holds your attention as a listener, which makes his work and journey even more alluring.

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‘Blue Room’ completely juxtaposes with all of his other projects, which includes drug addiction, the American family, river blindness, pediatric AIDS, abuses within the meatpacking industry, and aging and death in America. Hard-hitting, but Richards’ grew tired of photographing people and wanted desperately to move away from portraiture and try something new. That something new just happened to be abandoned houses and buildings. Richards’ travelled across America feeding his new obsession. He’d try and locate places, which he could still enter without disturbing them. Breaking and entering was completely prohibited. Richards was amazed and fascinated by the things these buildings held. Possessions of a life gone by, stories upon stories just radiated out from them.

The images in the series, this time all in colour, illustrate Richards’ fascination and persistence as well as the mystique the objects and his finds possess beautifully. Each image tells a different story. Image upon image translates to novel upon novel. As a viewer you can’t help but to abandon yourself in the fantasy of what happened there, whose objects they were, why they were left behind. Were they in a rush? Were they running away? Question upon question fleet through your mind, then your faced with an entirely different image and feeling, offering a new story to imagine and lose yourself in. The images make you conjure up all sorts of stories, characters and feelings. Some feel haunting. Some feel dream-like. Some are strange. Some are quite scary. The latter I’m of course referring to as the immense amount of images of china dolls. I’ve never liked them. Even as a child! I conjure up feelings of these coming alive or this little thing that’s lived and seen too much. Glass eyes gleaming left abandoned and unloved, waiting to have vengeance. I’m joking but only a little. The most interesting images for me, were the ones which conjured up the most thought and curiosity. These included the wedding dress, cigarette butt marked with red lipstick and the I.D papers left under a mattress.

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As a viewer you almost become an investigator looking for clues as to what could had happened and why. The wedding dress is usually the most prized and cherished possession for a married woman, an item that can be worn for only one day and a moment, which should never be repeated by oath. Yet someone left it behind, still hanging in her wardrobe. Did the marriage turn sour? Did she leave never to return? Was it ever even worn? This item just seems unusual to be left in the conditions that it was found. Appearing like a long white ghost amidst a broken decaying house.

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The cigarette butt with lipstick, well, what a great find! It’s almost too good to be true! For me it instantly reminded me of David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ moody, mysterious and belonging to a beautiful high-class woman. In the video we are told that just before Richards was to take the photo he knocked the butt, dispersing the ash, which was still attached to it. He was heart broken. That fact the ash the lady had dragged from it was still attached is literally breath taking. Richards was so enthralled he had the butt examined. Turned out the butt were 50 years old. Amazing.

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The images of I.D papers ranging in names evidenced someone who was a criminal. The person must have left in a panic, rushing and running away from his wrong doings. I find it impressive that Richards’ managed to put the objects into context and find out their true story. It’s this storyteller and interest in stories, which I find really inspiring.

Overall, Eugene Richards is right up my street. His projects are diverse but all tell amazing and intriguing stories of character and substance. His persistence and ability to explore the unknown then expose it to so many so candidly is enviable. Traits I hope to grow from. If this man can’t inspire me to take images, no one can.

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