NEW YORK — Any good photographer is an artist. That’s obvious. What’s not so obvious is how often a truly enduring photographer is also something else. Robert Frank is a lyric poet. Linda Connor can be a priestess. Lee Friedlander and Elliott Erwitt are often comedians. Eugene Richards is always a tightrope walker.
“Eugene Richards: The Run-On of Time,” a comprehensive and often extremely moving retrospective of his now nearly 50 years as a photographer, runs at the International Center of Photography, through Jan. 6.
The tightrope Richards walks is emotional and moral. He has photographed the depredations of poverty, drug abuse, and racism; working-class life in South Boston and his native Dorchester in the 1970s; his first wife’s terminal cancer; a Denver emergency room; psychiatric hospitals; New York in the wake of 9/11; severely disabled veterans. With such subject matter, a thin line divides the sentimental, which is unwelcome (if understandable), from the exploitative, which is far worse (and inexcusable). In none of the 130 or so photographs at the ICP does Richards ever come close to straying onto either side.
Now 74, Richards went to Northeastern and studied photography at MIT with Minor White. Yet visually (and spiritually) he’s a descendant of W. Eugene Smith. There’s a similar sense of personal commitment, of a clear-eyed gaze trained on people too often ignored. The clearest example of that lineage is how Richards’s 1980s series on Denver General Hospital’s emergency room very much continues in the tradition of Smith’s famous photo essay “Country Doctor.”
Richards has a very fine eye for detail. There’s a photograph of an abandoned farmhouse in North Dakota, for example, where the dusting of snow on a bedspread says more about the rural Upper Great Plains than any number of sociological or economic studies might. More often, though, the details have to do with such objects that recur in the show as guns and syringes.
A different sort of dusting is visible in “Snow globe of the city as it once was, New York,” which Richards took shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. The two most obvious elements are the snow globe, with the World Trade Center towers visible within it, and a hand reaching over the sphere. The hand is a less obvious variant on the human element that fills his work. Look closer, and you see a thin layer of dust on the globe. No explanation is necessary to explain its presence. Richards’s photographs aren’t about explanation. They’re about demonstration — and connection.
The North Dakota photo is additionally notable for two reasons. It’s one of the few images in the show without people visible. Richards’s deeply humane approach takes its most obvious form in a no-less-deep concern with specific people. He doesn’t see — or show — social problems. He sees — and shows — individuals.
The title of “Wonder Bread, Dorchester, Massachusetts,” from 1975 is about the sign on the left of the photograph. What the image is about is both the African-American boy we see and the statement made by the juxtaposition of his blackness with the whiteness of that notoriously bland bakery product. The statement could have been bumper-sticker trite, but precisely because Richards’s emphasis so clearly rests on the youth it’s far richer than that. The youth is a person, not a symbol. It’s a marvel that Richards can achieve this effect with the boy’s face concealed by the marvelously expressive snaking of his arms. But he does — and as a bonus, those arms are almost waving the viewer into looking.
It’s also worth nothing that the photograph shows the kinship in Richards’s early work with another older photographer, Jules Aarons, a master of the Boston street. He made the North End his own in the ’50s and ’60s as Richards did Dorchester a decade later.
Richards’s focus on the person has been there from the beginning, photographing Arkansas sharecroppers during his time as a VISTA volunteer in the late ’60s. Even more striking than the diversity of Richards’s work is how there’s never a sense of him as outsider. That’s partly owing to his preferring to work on extended projects. He doesn’t just parachute in for an assignment. More than that, it’s a product of what is clearly a rare capacity for empathy.
The North Dakota photo is in color. There are a number of such in the show, including a 2013 portrait of Robert Frank. But most of the images by far are in black and white. Richards has memorably stated his preference. “There is an inarguable permanence about black and white. One feels like the places or subject you have photographed have been there forever, and you get the impression that if you went back it would still be there. Color has a feeling of impermanence about it. It’s the difference between the emotional and the intellectual.”
The richness of the show extends beyond the photographs. Richards has published more than a dozen books. He puts together maquettes for them, and several are here. There are items seen in the photographs that he’s collected over time. That snow globe is one. Most notable of all are several slide shows Richards compiled between 2004 and 2015 of the images.
The most memorable perhaps is “Stepping Through the Ashes,” about 9/11. It’ll break your heart. That’s OK, though. Sometimes hearts need breaking. It helps keep us human. Richards knows that, a knowledge that every photograph here testifies to.
EUGENE RICHARDS: THE RUN-ON OF TIME
International Center of Photography, 250 Bowery, New York, through Jan. 6. 212-857-0000,www.icp.orgMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.