On view December 9, 2017 – April 15, 2018
We live in an age in which facts have become suspect, and attention spans have eroded. We consume the majority of our news through television and online media sources that skew toward confirmation bias and clickbait rather than genuine, shared concerns. We often hear about complicated social issues — racism, drug addiction, poverty, homelessness, disease, mental health care, war and terrorism — in broad sweeps, or through polarizing rhetoric, without gaining a deep understanding of the complexities that often tether these issues together. The photographer Eugene Richards, however, has dedicated the past 45 years to picturing these subjects, focusing on the stories and personal experiences of individuals, families and communities. Richards’ powerful images, unvarnished and unsentimental, cut right to our hearts and minds, placing real people and their struggles at the center of his practice. His photographs are on view at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Dec. 9, 2017 through April 15, 2018 in a retrospective exhibition, Eugene Richards: The Run-On of Time. The show highlights his internationally renowned career through approximately 130 photographs, moving image works and books. Richards will be speaking at the museum twice: introducing a selection of his short films that will be screened Dec. 8, and talking about his work and full career Jan. 26.
Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, to working-class parents, Richards came to photography in the context of the Vietnam War and the civil unrest of the mid- to late 1960s. In 1967, after refusing the draft on moral grounds, Richards studied photography with Minor White at MIT, where he learned the techniques of large format photography and the rewards of close observation. Though he admired his teacher’s intensity, Richards found it difficult to embrace White’s lofty aesthetic philosophies, which seemed divorced from his own social concerns amid the political turmoil of the late 1960s. In 1969, he joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), working as a healthcare advocate in rural Arkansas and photographing the people he came to know there. In 1970, he helped found Respect, Inc., a private, non-profit social advocacy agency. There, he continued to photograph, and helped publish a community newspaper titled Many Voices, which was primarily devoted to informing black communities of their rights as voters and citizens. Deeply affected by the poverty and racial violence he witnessed and experienced, Richards found a purpose for his photography. Building on the documentary tradition of the celebrated Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith, Richards discovered a way to conjoin his powerful, expressive personal style of picture making with his sincere commitment to social consciousness.
For much of his career, Richards has worked as a photojournalist: He has been a member of the esteemed photo collective Magnum, and worked independently on assignments, many of which have led to expanded, personal book projects that include first-person texts culled from interviews with his subjects. Other projects have been entirely self-driven. This exhibition weaves together selections from each of his major published projects, as well as previously unpublished work. It highlights recurrent themes: the political, social, and economic realities that shape people’s lives, the strength of familial devotion and the impact of time and memory on the way we understand personal and societal change.
Richards places his trust, first and foremost, with his subjects, people whose difficult and complicated lives might otherwise go unnoticed. He has entered the lives of others, intimately getting to know their experiences of hardship and resilience, beauty and tragedy, hope and despair. Though Richards recognizes the impossibility of his medium to convey simple, universal truths, he also understands the expressive capacity of photography to ground complex social issues in personal, lived experience. In so doing, he harbors a fundamental hope that his images might challenge us to do more for one another in an increasingly uncertain and volatile world.
–April M. Watson, Curator, Photography