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Public Eye: Eugene Richards's "Red Ball of Sun Slipping Down"

By David Schonauer   Thursday June 5, 2014


Over the course of his acclaimed career, Eugene Richardshas covered topics as diverse as the American family, drug abuse, the meatpacking industry, and AIDS, working always in the borderland where objective documentary photography lives side by side with subjective self-expression, sometimes uneasily.

“As you get older you realize that you get away from the pomposity of being objectively original, and that you’ve always seen everything from your own eyes anyway. You fight it when you’re a journalist. Your whole goal is to maintain this quality of objectivity. And then as you get worn down some of that goes away, ” he said in a recent interview with PPD, describing the photographs in his latest book, Red Ball of Sun Slipping Down.

A time-traveling glimpse at the Arkansas Delta, the tiny book is also, and perhaps primarily, a deeply personal memoir, interweaving never-before-seen black-and-white images from the 1960s and early ’70s with recent color work, as well as a story about remarkable woman. Funded through a Kickstarter campaign and self-published, with distribution through D.A.P., the book will arrive in September, but work from the project debuts today at Chicago’s Stephen Daiter Gallery.
As Richards told Time LightBox last year, the book “speaks of life in the Arkansas delta, a place that I came to know just over forty years ago when I spent more than four years there working first as a VISTAvolunteer.” It was a time, Richards notes, when “cotton, poverty, and racism shaped people’s lives.”

                  Mount Calver Baptist Church of Christ, Hughes, AR, 1969

                 
                 The Kern children walking home, Crawfordsville, AR, 2010

                 Reverend and Mrs. Landers, Hughes, AR, 1969

And it was in that place that Richards’s life as a photojournalist was born, after he was asked to leave VISTA because his actions—such as bringing black and white kids to the beach together—angered locals. He and a group of other former VISTA volunteers launched a small newspaper called Many Voices. “We reported on social news, but also on the Klan and racial news,” he says. Richards, who had earlier studied photography with Minor White at MIT, shot photos for the publication. The Arkansas Delta, he says, “is where I learned to work with people as a photographer.”

 After leaving the Delta in 1972, he published a book called Few Comforts or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta, about the poverty he had seen there. “It was quickly remaindered, and that was a closed chapter in my life,” he says.

Over the years, however, he did occasionally return to the Delta, and that is how, in the late 1980s, he met Porter Lee. “She was quite a character, in the sense that she was a very tough grandmother, and her husband was much older than she, and she was taking care of him and her grandchildren,” says Richards. “She allowed me to stay around, which was hard for her, because we really had no relationship, and she was black and I was white and that still mattered. She never really spoke to me very much. But she let me stay. And then when I was going to leave she got very upset. That’s what the story I’m telling in the new book is about—this relationship.”

                  Priscilla and Porter Lee in Hughes, AR, 1986


                 The Ruins of a tenant farmer's shack near Hughes, AR, 2010

The new book might never have come about, though, if Richards hadn’t gotten an assignment from National Geographic in 2010 to return to the Delta. His photographs for the magazine show how the area, once filled with sharecroppers and juke joints, had become a sparsely populated center of industrialized farming. While there, he telephoned Lee, but, he says, she didn’t remember him. “I think she was in the beginning stages of dementia,” he says.

Two years later, the magazine published his new color images of the Delta, along with few of his black-and-white photos from the 1970s. While looking through his old contact sheets to find those images, Richards realized that over the years he had, as he puts it, “become a different photographer.”

“Some of the pictures I included in the first book were really other people’s pictures,” he told the New York Times last year. “It’s typical of when you’re beginning as a photographer, and you don’t want to admit it. This was a time of kind of a classicism in photography of rural America.” Later, after studying the work of Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and other street photographers, he learned there were “other ways of seeing things.”

The new book, in that sense, is a collision of both time and photographic style, and a brief history of Richards’s photographic life. The connective tissue is the story he wrote about his experience with Porter Lee—a statement of gratitude to the woman and her family, who befriended him and let him into their lives. It is also tribute to the place itself and its lasting effect on him.

 

 

 

 

 

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