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On Photography: Eugene Richards, 1944-present

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“There’s never a time that I’m not intrusive. That’s the base of what we – photographers – do: we’re intrusive. Anyone saying the opposite is silly. There’s a process and a means of getting to know people and getting them to trust you, but I’m always very aware that I’m visiting – that I’m there, that I have a responsibility, but I am intrusive.” -Eugene Richards


Eugene Richards’ mom gave him the money to buy his first camera, an Exacta when he was 16. “It was a beautiful thing. I had a summer job working all by myself painting construction barrels” he said, “I would slip off into the woods with my camera to take pictures. It was like nirvana, truly magical. It was enjoyable and spiritual to look at things I would never have looked at if I didn’t have a camera. That opened the door for me and gave me a way out.”

Civil rights

Eugene Richards was a civil rights activist and a volunteer in service to America — VISTA as it was known. He received a Bachelor of Arts from Northeastern University.

Slow down

Eugene Richards enrolled in graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the legendary photographer Minor White.

“I didn’t have a portfolio when I enrolled, and there were no more than eight or nine students in the class, which was focused on large-format photography. I was totally lost in the beginning but soon became enamored with Minor” Richards said. “He was always wrapped up in things below the surface, and the most important thing he taught me was to slow down. Minor made you “look” and taught us the difference between what the eye sees and what the camera sees.”

“That difference carried into my enjoyment and suspicion of photography.” He said, “It is easy to be seduced by an image, but no matter what you are doing and no matter how much you push reality you are never quite there when it comes to the “truth.” It was a valuable lesson that made me question, even more nowadays, what I am seeing.”

He became a noted documentary photographer of America during the 1960s.

Social awareness

Eugene Richards Photo: ©Jocelyn Bain Hogg

Eugene Richards intends his photographs to raise awareness of human interaction. From showing the poverty in rural Arkansas in his first book Few Comforts or Surprises, published in 1973 by MIT Press to his 1986 Aperture Book Exploding into Life that tells the story of 34-year-old Dorothea Lynch and her fight to survive breast cancer his work is close up. It is very personal.

He has published sixteen books during his 46-year-long career.


Eugene Richards worked as a photojournalist beginning in 1974. LIFE, the London Sunday Times and The New York Times have published his work. He was an artist in residence at the International Center for Photography in 1978.

In 1979, he joined the photo agency Magnum founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour,) Robert Capa and George Rodger. He worked with the agency until 1995. He came back to Magnum for three more years in 2002.

Wide-angle world view

Eugene Richards works up close to his subjects. He almost always uses wide-angle lenses. “I have always been a little afraid of the ‘iconic’ image, where everything is settled and final,” Richards said. “Wide-angle lenses give you a discordance and complexity like life itself, which is transitory, and my style being a little bit fractured and incomplete reflects that.”

Black and white and color

“I have never been so aware of the difference between color and black and white since I began working on my book, Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down, which contains black-and-white and color images.” Eugene Richards explained his love of black and white. “There is an inarguable permanence about black and white. One feels like the place or subject you have photographed has been there forever, and you get the impression that if you went back it would still be there.”

“Color has a feeling of impermanence about it. It’s the difference between the emotional and the intellectual. When you are shooting in color everything is fleeting and dependent on so many elements. In some ways, the palette of emotion is larger in color, but for me, black and white is so solemn, grand and significant.”

Photo essays in digital times

Eugene Richards understands that the demise of photo magazines like LIFE and LOOK has affected the long-form picture story in modern times.

“There is no way around it—the options in print for any extended photo stories are almost nil, which leaves us with the online digital world, where stories are being done in increasing numbers as small media pieces such as videos of animated slides,” he said.

“It is increasingly hard to explore something in-depth. Doing books is so incredibly hard today, when most editors don’t think anyone is interested in looking at things in books and everything is presented in bytes of news.”

Future work

“There is a temptation to turn away from documentary work, as there are increasingly limited opportunities, but whatever is still called “social documentary” work I still do, although I am kind of in a holding pattern.” Eugene Richards said in an interview with B&W Magazine.

“That kind of work is not popular and not considered art. The gallery world has made the determination that it is not art, period, and the punch line you hear whenever this kind of work comes up in a gallery context is, ‘Is this great art or documentary photography?’”

War Is Personal video

Eugene Richards talks about his inspiration for his book War Is Personal in this 5-minute video. It is a deeper look into the humanity of this renowned photojournalist.

Sources: Bandwmag, Eugene Richards, All About Photography.

Read stories of great and inspirational photographs in On Photography.

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