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Review: Eugene Richards at Fahey/Klein Gallery

June 26, 2009 | 10:30 am


Photographer Eugene Richards has chronicled poverty, drug addiction, aging and death. He’s documented emergency room medicine, his first wife’s struggle with cancer and the toll of river blindness and pediatric AIDS. The former member of the Magnum photo agency has received just about every award given to photojournalists, published more than a dozen books and produced several short films.

There’s an urgency to the style and subject matter of his work, which makes his recent photographs of abandoned structures in the West and Midwest seem, at first, a dramatic departure. The series, which the Brooklyn-based artist worked on over the course of 3 1/2 years, is also his first body of work in color. A selection of 26 pictures from “The Blue Room” is on view at Fahey/Klein Gallery in Richards’ first L.A. show in more than a decade.

The images are deeply moving meditations on absence, ruin and the passage of time. Though his work of the last 30 years has captured all manner of vital commotion, these scenes are steeped in prolonged stillness. Not a single human being appears within them, yet they are profoundly humanistic.

They too tell of struggle and tragedy, tenacity, fragility and loss. It’s not a stretch to say these pictures also have an urgency about them, even as they record vacant rooms that are changing only at the pace of natural decay. The urgency has to do with preservation, with the importance of knowing our collective history through visual records — in this case, of lives lived and places once occupied.

Richards made the photographs in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Arkansas and New Mexico. It’s not clear when the homes in the pictures were abandoned or why, and Richards doesn’t volunteer the information in his titles (which give just location and date) or in the short text published with a fuller set of pictures in the book “The Blue Room.”

The images bring to mind some of the grittier environments recorded by Farm Security Administration photographers in the 1930s and early ’40s, the scrappy, tenuous homes of tenant farmers, especially. But again, Richards gives no context to the dilapidation of these farmhouses, their doors yanked off the hinges, windows broken, curtains ripped, floors carpeted in debris. Some rooms look stripped clean and left to rot. Others still contain personal belongings (spoons, dolls, family photos), the inhabitants having left without time or the means to pack up.

A child’s room is papered in a sprightly alphabet print — A for smiling apple — but on the floor lie four small, dead birds. The contrast between promise and defeat is spare and stark.

Another, narrow space painted in cracked and peeling green holds a single bed with a worn mattress. Snow has drifted in through the shattered window and settled in a neat patch across the bed, a stunning metaphor of loneliness made real.

The narrative potential of each image is vast. Richards is generous with tactile clues and atmosphere, and most of all palpable texture.

He shoots down onto the floor of one room strewn with shoes: leather shoes, boots, with and without laces, with and without mates. Scattered among them are some cracked record albums, yellowed album sleeves and soft-bound books open to musical scores. One book page diagraming the “Figure Eight Stroke” on a guitar lies near a pair of ice skates, setting loose a rhyme of related motions. The picture reads like a novella not quite fixed to the page, an assembly of textures, memories and implied characters.

Richards practices a different mode of storytelling in this series, one that demands restraint, that respects emptiness, vacancy. The power of the pictures derives from multiple sources — fiction, cinema, still life and, always, social documentation. One other tradition he extends in this body of work is that of the death portrait, for what are these rooms if not empty shells whose souls have lifted free?

— Leah Ollman

Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 934-2250, through July 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Above: "Taiban, New Mexico, February." Credit: © Eugene Richards / Fahey/Klein Gallery