Eugene Richards is a god among photographers, and for good reason. During his long career, he's been the gold standard, when it comes to documentary photography.
Last week, I wrote about his 1994 book, Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue at the Photo Book Club, a British web-based magazine that's devoted to promoting discussions about influential books of photography. Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue certainly qualifies. Its searing photos explore the drug culture of the 1990s, focusing especially on black and Latino dealers and users. As much as I admire Richards' images, I think the book is a disaster. Here's where I ended up:
...many readers came (and come) away knowing less about the drug crisis, rather than more. In the absence of analysis and explanation from Richards, many people would have fallen back on ideas already circulating in the culture. A great many — not all — of those notions would have been deeply racist.
It’s not so much that Richards’ images are decontextualized, it’s that their context would too often have been America’s reflexively racist culture, rather than its history and political-economy. As a result, the photos reinforce, rather than undermine, stereotypes of black and Latino depravity and criminality.
Click on the image to see a larger version. Click here to go to the website.
* * *
PS: I should explain why I'm calling Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue a "heroic failure."
It seems to me that Richards felt that the very power of his images would prompt Americans to rethink the social calamity that we call the "War on Drugs." As I said in answer to Banos' response...
...You’re probably right that [Richards] intentions were honorable — that he believed his photos would lead to change. After all, photos do sometimes contribute mightily to social change. But they don’t do so in a political vacuum.
The strongest examples of photography contributing to progressive social change all come from situations in which photography was directly or indirectly allied with political movements — the Civil Rights movement, in the United States; the anti-Vietnam-War movement, worldwide; the liberation struggle, in South Africa.
As we know, Richards’ book was released into a very different atmosphere, one in which debates were dominated by a frankly reactionary “war on drugs,” in which the poor and racial and ethnic minorities were cast as the enemy.
Richards was certainly not responsible for the political climate of the day. But he did have an obligation to think more deeply about the impact his photos might have.