Eugene Richards is currently based in New York City. After graduating from Northeastern University in Boston with a degree in English, Richards studied photography with Minor White. Richards has been recognized by numerous prestigious awards, fellowships, and prizes in photography, including the Guggenheim Fellowship, the W. Eugene Smith Award, and the Infinity Award. Among Richards’s seventeen seminal books of documentary photography are his accounts of a pre-opioid drug epidemic crisis in Cocaine True Cocaine Blue (1994); emergency room trauma in The Knife and Gun Club (1989); and his unflinching portrait of his partner’s fatal illness in Exploding into Life (1986). In his work Richards has focused consistently on the drama of the human condition, often portraying people and places on the margins, from institutionalized mentally disabled people to those traumatized by war, from decaying inner cities to abandoned rural homes disintegrating into the landscape. His work is in collections such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.
Described as the deepest place in the Deep South, the Arkansas Delta is an extensive agricultural territory along the Mississippi River where plantation cotton, later rice, and more recently soybeans and catfish have been farmed. Two monographs focusing on the region—Few Comforts or Surprises (1973) and Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down (2014)—serve as brackets for Richards’s work over the course of four-plus decades. The photographer described the first book as an exploration of poverty and race in the “troubled” South, and his most recent as an account of “remembrance and change” over the course of forty years there.
The ongoing mechanization of agriculture since the second half of the twentieth century has meant that poverty remains a constant in the Arkansas Delta. In accordance with one widely accepted definition of the frontier as places with six people or fewer per square mile, the region has long since returned to frontier status as technology-derived poverty pushed people off the land in an ongoing great migration that, it seems, never ended there.
Those who remain confront the reality of rural decline in the New South. Fellow Southbound photographers, such as Shelby Adams, Rob Amberg, and Brandon Thibodeaux, among others, celebrate the resilience of rural communities in part with their portraits focused on the dignity of the people living there—and the golden boots worn by the pool player in Richards’s photograph titled Zenoria, Brinkley, Arkansas (2010) speak to that same quality. Richards’s landscape photographs, however, draw a line under our tenuous relationship with the world around us in times of economic and demographic decline. In Peter’s Rock Church, Marianna, Arkansas (2010), the Dotson grave, in front of a church collapsing into a landscape that might again become a meadow, evidenced by the dandelion seed heads that sprout across the image, makes that point every bit as forcefully as Richards’s images of abandoned homes in photographs titled South of Wheatley, Arkansas (2005) and North of Cotton Plant, Arkansas (2005),.
In North of Cotton Plant, Arkansas (2005), we might almost fool ourselves that the mottling on the decaying screen is really a murmuration of starlings taking flight in the distance. There are festive lights in the image, after all, predisposing us to uplifting thoughts; but white, broken steps to nowhere in a garden long since gone to seed niggle and wake us from that reverie. If the New South is wrapped up in transitions to knowledge-economy jobs and the influx of new people to revitalized downtowns and booming cities, those complex processes will imprint places across the region distant from those hubs of change, pulling rural populations to big city lights that, sometimes, twinkle to deceive. Transformation can be seen everywhere across the New South and, as Richards’s masterful photographs underline, some places benefit more than others.