By Stephen Wolgast

For more than 40 years, Eugene Richards has held a mirror to society. Even his simplest images are packed with nuance, composed with a literary quality that pulls the viewer deeper. It’s a style that asks the viewer not to just see the pictures, but to read them and feel them. It’s a quality that makes it hard to look away.

Eugene Richards (photo by John Morgan)Richards graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in English and the notion that he wanted to become a writer, maybe a newspaper reporter. A short internship on the Boston Globe copy desk changed his mind.

“So I heard about these photo classes and decided it’s what I wanted to do,” says Richards. Minor White, the legendary fine art photographer, taught the classes at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“He was quite a figure in the Boston community at the time,” Richards says, not only for his photography but also for his meditative lifestyle, one that White impressed upon his students. “He kept telling me to calm down,” he says. “He wanted everyone to slow down.”

White pushed his students to find ways to make pictures that expressed emotions, often using “emotionally-laden phrases” as a catalyst. “He was like a method actor, trying to translate what you’re feeling into the photograph with a means of expression,” Richards says.

White saw talent in Richards and pushed him to find his own vision. “So whatever I was, was starting to emerge,” says Richards.

It was the height of the Vietnam War and he shared the broad outrage felt by many of his generation – not only about the war, but lagging progress in civil rights and poverty.

He decided to make a statement. “I cut up my draft card and sent it in,” he says. Worried about being jailed, he was surprised by the government’s reaction. Richards wasn’t drafted. Instead, the government invited him to join Vista (Volunteers In Service to America), the program that sends volunteers to economically starved parts of the U.S. to help people improve their lives.

He accepted the invitation and was sent to eastern Arkansas to work as a health care advocate. He expected the poverty but not the depth of racism and fear he found there. “There was a lot of violence then” mostly toward blacks, he says.  But some of it was directed at him and others sympathetic to the quest for civil rights and economic improvement.

Immersing himself in the local culture, Richards attended black churches, ate meals with black families and activists and lived in a boardinghouse where blacks were also tenants. His transgressions didn’t go unnoticed. His dog was shot to death; a white man cut his face with razor blades and the Klu Klux Klan made threats.

One morning he woke up suffering near total amnesia and seizures. He thinks he was beaten. He was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Texas. To this day he has memory orientation problems, and often goes west when he’s told to go east, he says. This condition, along with repeated complaints of Richards’ run-ins with local authorities, led to his dismissal from Vista. But he remained in Arkansas and, along with other former Vista volunteers, founded a social service organization that published a small newspaper – Many Voices. 

Although he had been turned off newspaper work, the conditions in Arkansas gave him new reasons to write and take pictures to go with his stories.

“It was a wake-up call,” he says. “A lot of the things down there gave me a sense of what I wanted to do.”

When Richards returned home to Dorchester, a neighborhood south of Boston in 1973, the fight over school busing was heating up, and he saw racism just as vicious as he had seen in the South.

“I left the South very disappointed. I didn’t know where I was going as a photographer. I had no money. I was wandering around the streets, taking pictures. You always had some idea back then that if you took photographs you could make a living at it.”

He began putting together his first book of images from his time in the south: Few Comforts or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta, which was followed 5 years later by Dorchester Days and an invitation to join Magnum.

In perhaps one of his most powerful and controversial works, Richards photographed his wife and collaborator Dorothea Lynch, as she waged a battle against breast cancer. Exploding into Life is a deeply personal exploration of struggle and hope. Richards’ photographs paired with Lynch’s journals are compelling and poignant. The book was published in 1986, three years after Lynch’s death.

As important and personal as the book was, its reception was cold, speaking to some of the challenges faced by a photographer who opens the lid on those parts of our communities that many people would rather keep shut. Others criticized him for being a man who took on a women’s health issue, ignoring his personal and painful role in the story and expecting him to remain mute.

“I’ve seen interesting reactions when people disagree with what they see,” Richards says. “And then a slow dialogue emerges.” After Exploding into Life was published, “quite a number of people felt it was inappropriate,” he says. “That the photos were too graphic and would frighten women – all good points. But women said they needed to see them.”

The discussion is a sort of vindication. “Will it change things? I can’t say. At least people are talking.”

From here Richards’ work gathers pace, intensity and depth, while his quiet persistence is clearly evident. Over the next twenty-five years he delivers seven major works and three provocative compilations of editorial assignments. Minor White’s command to contemplate clearly at work, drawing out the emotion, the symbol, the meaning.

Richards has cast aside the notion that photographs speak for themselves. Words make an increasingly significant contribution -- providing another dimension, telling the back-story, revealing his subjects’ motivations (and, sometimes, his own), creating complementary tales that are richer precisely because they diverge.

In Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue (Aperture, 1994) the text is delivered in two tracks. One replays the voices of the people Richards encounters. Monologues and dialogues, they could be spoken by characters in a play if we weren’t confronted by the distant gazes on the facing pages. Letting the addicts talk directly to the reader is Richards giving us their voice.

He speaks for himself in shorter bursts.

 It never ends. Just days ago a fifteen-year-old nicknamed Smoky was murdered. And though the dead boy’s grieving friends said that the facts of how it happened didn’t matter much to them, there were at least twenty versions of the shooting traveling throughout the project. Some residents believed the boy was murdered simply for what he was wearing, shot in the head so his full-length leather coat wouldn’t be damaged. 

It is here that Richards shows his respect, concern and compassion. It is in these words that he works out for himself the meaning of the photographs. It is here where he pushes the reader to emotionally connect with the images at the deepest level. The words are personal – no wonky context or statistical abstraction – nothing to suggest that what you are seeing and reading is illustrative of anything more than what’s right in front of you – and yet the point is made.

Richards laments that editorial photography has become so illustrative. The Fat Baby (Phaidon, 2004) is a collection of 15 short works drawn from his editorial magazine assignments. It’s a “director’s cut,” divorced from the original writing that accompanied the stories, if they indeed were published.  In literary terms it is the equivalent of a short story anthology, beautifully paced and edited.

Richards’ most recent work, War is Personal, (Many Voices Press, 2010) takes a similar approach, compiling 15 stories about “what it means to go to war, to fight, to wait, to mourn, to remember, to live on when those you love are gone.” It is Richards searching for answers, assuaging what he admits was his own outrage at his own inaction. 

On the home page for the book’s website, Richards recites short passages from the book to the passing of images from the stories they are from – quotes by his subjects and his personal thoughts and reflections. There’s a calm in his voice, a contemplative tone, a feeling he is inviting us to share in a solemn meditation – an attempt to listen for understanding.