Autumn 2004

The painful vision of Eugene Richards

The Fat Baby: stories by Eugene Richards

Phaidon, £59.95, €95

While many forms of photography are enjoying a popularity like never before – be it through the increasing number of galleries who specialise in the art or the ever expanding numbers of magazines – photojournalism and documentary photography (war being the one exception) appears to be in terminal decline. Ever since the last of the great picture magazines closed in the late 1970s, photojournalists have struggled to find new outlets for their stories. One of the few remaining outlets for socially important photography has been the newspaper supplement, but it now seems that even they have turned their backs on the genre, too, in favour of the celebrity portrait (no matter how ‘D’ list) or the lifestyle feature.

One of the few remaining print alternatives to the magazine has been the photographic monograph, and one of the latest is the The Fat Baby by Magnum photographer Eugene Richards. Collected in this mammoth volume are fifteen essays produced over the past decade for the likes of Esquire, Life, The New York Times magazine and the Independent on Sunday, along with work that has never previously been published. Ever since the self-publication of his first book Dorchester Days in 1978 (re-issued by Phaidon in 2000), Richards has been considered one of the most – if not the most – significant and original photojournalists of our time.

Within the four hundred plus pages we are shown illness, both mental and physical, gang culture, drug addiction, domestic life and strife, famine – a story from which the book takes its title – birth and ultimately death. Through Richards’ striking black and white images our emotions run the gamut from the bleak to the downright dire, via a little love and tenderness. While his photographs, when run in a magazine would be accompanied by a journalist’s report, here they are each accompanied by a text written by Richards himself, which allows us access to his feelings and thoughts as he produced each of these touching and compelling stories.

As with his previous book Stepping Through the Ashes (Aperture, 2002), a book that allows the reader an opportunity to reconsider the events of 9/11, and through self-examination come to terms with the aftermath, Richards has designed the new volume himself. This is not an ego trip on Richards’ part, merely a frustration: the publishers’ preferred designer made it clear that he worked alone, and was not open to collaboration. Given that many of today’s designers opt for an overpowering statement, one can understand the photographer’s stance. [...]