COVER Hard looks: Eugene Richards' unflinching eye

A wild-eyed drug addict clinches a needle between the few teeth he has left. A naked mental patient crouches in his cell, lacing his fingers through its metal bars. An Iraq war veteran pitches forward, bare-chested and twisted in his wheelchair. Wherever society turns away, that's where Eugene Richards turns his camera. 

Over the past 34 years, Richards has published 13 books of brutal yet beautiful black-and-white photographs expressing the photographer's passionate concern for social issues. The first, Few Comforts or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta, resulted from several years Richards spent as a social worker following graduate study with famed photographer Minor White. Richards says White taught him "to get quiet, to learn how to be quiet instead of rushing."

Of all of his projects, Richards, 62, says the most challenging was shooting Exploding into Life, a record of his first wife's losing battle with breast cancer. 

"That was awful," he says. "But she wanted me to paint the picture." 

More recently, his collection of post-9/11 images, Sleeping through the Ashes, was personally painful for the Brooklyn resident. "The only reason I do books is that I have to," he says. "I have to get this stuff out of my life and out of my head."

Currently, Richards is expanding three "textual photographs" he wrote and shot for The Nation, recounting his encounters with Iraq war veterans and their families, into a book, War is Personal. He's also working on a volume of color photographs about "left-behind houses."

Regarding the Festival of the Photograph, Richards says, "For me, it's going to be a nice collection of friends." His exhibition, "Thirteen Books," at the McGuffey Art Center will feature nine-foot panels of pages in the main gallery. 

"They're kind of collages that reflect what the books are about," he explains. In the hall galleries, Richards plans to hang individual images, including a new series with captions written directly on the photographs. He'll also screen several recent video pieces.

What would he like to discuss during his Paramount interview? "The only thing that's on my mind right now is the war," Richards says, although he also points out he's rarely asked, "Who helps you through?"

"You deal with so much bitterness and anger and brutality on the street," Richards explains. "And you come home, and you have someone who loves you and cares for you and you have a child– the world looks so much better to you."

Eugene Richards' exhibition, "Thirteen Books," will be on view June 1-30 at the McGuffey Art Center, 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973. On June 8, three short films by Richards screen at Vinegar Hill Theater at 1pm. On June 9, Richards discusses his work with Alex Chadwick at the Paramount Theater, 4-6pm. For more information and/or to purchase tickets, visit

Eugene Richards
Photo by John F. Morgan