Conscious Photography

ICP’s first retrospective of Eugene Richards (b. 1944) spans nearly 50 years and explores critical themes in the photographer’s career. Combining original documents, notes, prints and digital videos from the artist’s collection, the exhibition captures Richards’s versatility, in terms of both style and subject matter. It is divided into seven thematic sections relating to aspects of socioeconomic struggle, health crises, war and terrorism, and evolving notions of the American family.

Richards is particularly well-known for socially and politically conscious images of American inner-city life. In the 1980s, he and the reporter Edward Barnes worked together on a project dealing with inner-city drug addiction, which successfully presented an intimate and complex view of cocaine and crack addiction across groups of people. “There’s a process of getting to know people and getting them to trust you,” he wrote in 1986. “[But] I’m always very aware that I’m visiting – that I’m there, that I have a responsibility.”

Richards spent time in Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks. He also spoke to collateral victims and first responders, documenting wounded veterans recently back from Afghanistan and Iraq. He conversed with their family members; attended funeral services, home births and weddings – always seeking to find the intrinsic relation between problematic places and the humans that inhabit them. In his recent The Blue Room series, Richards captured the Midwest’s crumbling economic landscape and the repercussions on the local population. Peter Rock’s Church, taken in 2010 in Arkansas, shows a lively dog next to a tombstone, with a broken-down church in the background. This ongoing concern with the intersection of individual human lives and social circumstances makes Richards a unique and necessary voice in the art world – and indeed our wider culture.

Olivia Hampton

The exhibition is on view at ICP, New York, until 20 January. Find out more here. 

1. Eugene Richards, Wonder Bread, Dorchester, Massachusetts, 1975.
Gelatin silver print. Collection of Eugene Richards. © Eugene Richards.