Talking with E about photojournalism a couple of days ago. He loaned me a book entitled Witness in Our Time (Ken Light). As I was leafing through, I came across the entry on Eugene Richards. I almost met Mr. Richards when he had a show at Hal Gould’s gallery Camera Obscura in Denver. At the time of the show, my friend Janis had her rare books bookstore Book Buffs located in the same building as Hal’s place, with spaces adjoined, but separated by an iron gate-like door. I was working for Janis at the time, learning the book trade from her, learning about photography from Hal. Hal had been around for a long time, was in his nineties, still photographed, still jogged everyday and was a gourmet cook. He would come to the gate door every morning to say hi to me, and would often tell me about the exhibits that he was preparing to put up. It seemed that he knew everyone who was someone in the world of photography, and if I listened carefully, I would get snippets of REAL information about these someones. Sometimes, Hal would have a show where the actual photographer would be there for the opening. This was the case with photojournalist Eugene Richards’ show.
I had never heard of Richards until Hal and his assistant Loretta were putting up his photographs. I watched the progress of the hanging through the bars of the door. The images I saw were so matter of fact and quiet, they screamed at me…drug addicts shooting up, shooting victims being treated in the ER…Richards had books of his work, well-known books with titles such as Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, The Knife and Gun Club (which was photographed in the ER of Denver General, just down the street from where I lived). Hal and Loretta were buzzing with excitement about the show, and I couldn’t help but absorb some of the excitement from them. I was looking forward meeting Richards, and I decide to stop looking through the bars so that I would be able to view the exhibit as it should be viewed, with newness and continuity, the night of the opening.
I can’t remember what the weather was like the night of the opening, nor can I remember any of the photographs from the show other than the ones that I had seen days before…all of the rest of the images were erased from my mind by the one image that stands out to me from that evening, an image that I believe I have now somehow altered in my memory to show something that it may or may not have shown.
The night of the show, I locked up the bookshop, walked down the stairs of Book Buffs’ stoop, and made my way up the stairs of Camera Obscura. The narrow gallery was modestly filled with lookers, it was early in the evening. Mr. Richards was talking with his admirers towards the front, his wife was beside him, seeming to be occupied with observing the reactions of the viewers; Hal and Loretta were helping individuals navigate the narrow stairwell that led upstairs to the wine, and to what may be the biggest & best collection of photography books in the region. I began at what was traditionally the starting point for a show at Hal’s, and very slowly made my way around the gallery. I remember thinking that all of the photos were vessels of words, spilling out things that you didn’t want to hear, making you wonder how Eugene was able to see what he captured with his camera, and then be able to walk away with his sanity intact, and his responsibility for humanity light enough to not drag him down so low that he couldn’t sleep at night from the thoughts of what man can do to himself and to others. How does one keep from becoming too burdened by those images?
As I got to the back wall, far right corner of the gallery, out of the corner of my eye I saw an image that made my breath catch in my throat. I muttered to myself, “No, that can’t be what I’m seeing,” and skipped over the image, thinking it best to save it for last. I continued to move forward, and eventually found myself at the end of the photos. Only the one photo that I had skipped remained. I walked back over and planted myself in front of the photo. The image was from the ‘70s and was a portrait of Eugene’s first wife Dorothea. Dorothea was a writer, and had been diagnosed with breast cancer in a time when breast cancer was a death sentence. She and Eugene had agreed on a collaboration of writings and photos to tell her story, knowing that there could be only one inevitable ending. That day in the Spring of 2004, in a small photo gallery in Denver on the corner of 13th and Bannock, I found myself standing in front of what very well may have been the last photo that Eugene had taken of his wife before she succumbed to the disease. Dorothea’s white skin was glowing with an unnatural luster. Her lips were dry and cracked. Her hair was making a valiant effort to return to her beautifully round head. Her eyes were overflowing with tenderness. One tear hung in threat of spilling from her right eye, a tear that was reflecting an unrecognizable image (Eugene and camera?) But what was so terribly unique about the photo, and what caused me to start my very hasty exit from the gallery was the sight of Eugene’s hand in the photo. A moment before Eugene snapped the picture, he had reached out to touch his wife’s cheek. His hand remained in the photo, forever in that matrimonial caress. He did what a photojournalist should not, he became part of the story.
I couldn’t leave that gallery quickly enough with my emotion about to erupt out of me, and as I literally bolted for the door, I saw Eugene’s current wife, with her eyes watching my breakdown, trying to pull away from the well-wishers who were speaking to her and Eugene. I think she was trying to get to me, possibly to speak to me about what I was feeling, to see if I was okay, but I couldn’t stop. The five-block walk home must have served to calm my nerves, I honestly don’t remember.
Good photojournalists present to us images that should make us feel something, good or bad, and possibly move us to try to right some wrong, or to at least keep moving in an ethical and moral direction. And I think that there are times when good photojournalists present to us images so traumatic that we cannot be protected from the trauma depicted in them. It is possible that we, the viewer, mythologize the images that we find traumatic or overly moving (as we would in a traumatic situation). I was overwhelmed by Eugene’s photo of Dorothea that day, and I believe that I may have altered the photo in my mind. I really don’t know for sure if there was a tear in Dorothea’s eye; I really don’t know for sure if Eugene’s hand was in that photo. I suppose that I could order the book that contains the photo (with many others) as well as the story that they recorded together of her cancer struggle (Exploding Into Life), but I don’t think I want to know for sure. The image exists in my memory as it is. No one else saw the photo the way that I did on that day. Not even I could see it that way again. But I do know for certain that Eugene did his job as a photojournalist with that photo.