A Procession of Them: The Plight of the Mentally Disabled at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery

By: Ben Majoy

Eugene Richards’s photographs are depressing. I mean this in the best way possible. I mean it in the sense that he expresses depression as a very candid part of the human condition that many people shy away from. It’s uncomfortable. It’s unattractive. The thing about photography though, especially in Eugene Richards’s case, is that it’s also very tangible.

In the 1960’s, Richards was an avid civil rights activist and volunteer with Vista. This dedication to the recognition of other human beings struggle to even survive is presumably an immensely humbling experience. This is the core of what seems so interesting about Richard’s work. He doesn’t capture human being’s struggle to live. He captures another incredibly bizarre and evasive moment. He manages to capture people relishing in the few brief moments of solace that they have, while the rest of their lives seem to continue to collapse beneath them. In some of the pictures, this solace is crack. In some of the pictures this solace is a detail of their own miserable poverty. Sometimes this solace is simply the main character’s own smile, even though the rest of the picture makes it glaring obvious that they don’t smile very often. In every picture though, he equates that person’s life to your own. To me, in Richards’s photographs, I see such raw emotion and imagery that I am terrified that what is happening in the picture, could happen to me. I can’t remember ever feeling this way before while looking at photographs.
I met an interesting man while he was pan handling today. He looked a lot like a man featured in one of Mr. Richard’s most humbling pictures, only wearing clothes. In the picture, a man sits in the shower staring at the opposite wall. He stars with an unmistakable look of genuine oblivion. He’s not necessarily oblivious to the fact that a man is taking a picture of him showering, but rather he seems oblivious to the fact that there is a world beyond the shower curtain. He seems to have accepted hopelessness. After exiting the brown line L, I took my new friend Bill into the 7-11 get him whatever he wanted (as long as It was under five dollars). As bill threw his hot dogs onto the counter he began to tell me how he came to be on the corner in Chicago. The conversation ended with, “well, I hope you have a better life than I’ve had”.

Looking at Richards’s portfolio, I’m reminded that I’ve had this incredible urge to watch Charlie Kauffman’s most recent film Synechdoche NY. I don’t exactly know why. The first and only time I’ve ever seen it I almost had to quit life for a week because it threw me into such an overwhelming depression. That film is the most terrifying movie I’ve ever seen and probably will ever see. It features no gory subplots or implications that there may or may not be a man standing outside of your window, wearing some fifth grader’s plastic ghost mask and a clever. Instead, Philip Seymour Hoffman stares you in the face and says “Hey. I know you try really hard to be good at things, and you are terrified of being ordinary, but you could die alone with a puddle of hard work at your feet.” It’s absolutely horrifying. Richard’s work has the same effect on me. I look at the main characters in those pictures and I can’t help but think, “How did you get there? Could I become that? If the world is harsh enough to put such kind strangers in those positions, how much control do I really have over my life?”  However, just like Richards’s photography, I also recommend Synecdoche NY to everyone because it’s too brilliant of a film to not see.

We’ve all seen a lot of depressing images, especially in the aftermath of the Haiti tragedy. But they have never affected me in the way that Richard’s work affects me. I’ve been affected by people in this way, but I don’t meet people like Bill very often. The poor man drew some bad cards. If Richard’s had been around touting his camera, he would have a taken a picture of Bill just as he was finishing his last bite of his last hot dog, fully realizing that he is content for the first time that day, but that might be the last time in awhile. That picture would have been depressing, but stunningly beautiful.

Eugene Richards’s show A Procession of Them: The Plight of the Mentally Disabled opens on Thursday, Feb. 11 at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery. It’s going to be a truly awesome display of touching photography. Look “awesome” up in the dictionary and you’ll know exactly what I mean. I’ll see you there. I’ll be the one having an existential breakdown in the corner.

A Procession of Them: The Plight of the Mentally Disabled will be on display at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery from February 11th to May 14th.  Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery is located at 18 S. Michigan Ave.

[Editors Note: http://www.eugenerichards.com/ has an impressive gallery of additional photographs.]