Art

Photographs of Poverty Measure Broken Systems and Lives

Eugene Richards’s Below the Line: Living Poor in America isn’t about sympathy but something more.

Caption: Porter Lee Davis helps her critically ill husband, Mr. Will, from the cab of their pickup truck. Title: Porter Lee and Mr. Will, Hughes, Arkansas, 1986
Eugene Richards “Porter Lee and Mr. Will, Hughes, Arkansas” (1986) Porter Lee Davis helps her critically ill husband, Mr. Will, from the cab of their pickup truck. (All images courtesy of the artist and the Bronx Documentary Center)

Normally when I think of poverty in the abstract, I think of a series of lacks — not having healthy food, a selection of clean clothes, stable housing that has the utilities I associate with decent accommodations: electricity, hot and cold running water, operational plumbing. What surprises me about the photographs of Eugene Richards in the exhibition Below the Line: Living Poor in America, is that in many of his images there is so much stuff. There are broken down trucks, battered washing machines, crumbling cars, derelict mattresses, and soiled clothing. Even in the image of a woman that appears to be cooking beneath a yawning hole in the plaster ceiling above her that divulges the wood slats that lay underneath, there is a stove next to a washing machine and pots and pans. I glean from seeing these things that poverty is other than just deprivation; it is also dilapidation — the slide towards entropy that isn’t held in check by dutiful and competent maintenance. This analogy works at several levels: in terms of the actual appliances and tools that make our lives easier to manage, and also in terms of the economic and social infrastructure that could provide a more coherent safety net to catch these people who fall through.

Caption: Boys sleep on the hood of a pickup truck on a hot summer day in Still House Hollow, Tennessee. Title: Still House Hollow, Tennessee, 1986
Eugene Richards “Still House Hollow, Tennessee” (1986) Boys sleep on the hood of a pickup truck on a hot summer day in Still House Hollow, Tennessee.

Make no mistake. This exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center is about broken, machines, tools, systems, and people as well. In Richards’ black-and-white portraits, there is mostly grief edging towards despair, though some fight on. If you are somewhat sentimental, you will want to call these people — rural and metropolitan, migrant workers,  those who have lost their ranches, the working poor, the chronically ill — you may want to call them brave. I don’t. I think many of them hang onto mere survival because it’s what they know to do. Perhaps that’s judgmental, but I take pains to avoid sentimentalizing struggles that are not my own.

Caption: Fred, who has just returned from prison, weeps as he greets his former girlfriend Rose in a New York City shantytown. Title: Back from prison, Shantytown, New York City, 1986
Eugene Richards, “Back from prison, Shantytown, New York City” (1986) Fred, who has just returned from prison, weeps as he greets his former girlfriend Rose in a New York City shantytown.

The exhibition consists of a selection of photographs commissioned by the Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, which asked the photojournalist Eugene Richards to document poverty as he traveled through 14 American cities and towns in the 1980s. Astutely the exhibition also includes several placards on which are given accounts from people interviewed by Richards. We hear their own voices relating what they endure: One woman, Connie Arthur who awakes at 2:00 am each work day to begin one of two jobs from which she earns about $13,000 per year, and who has a partner in prison, talks about reaching a point of near break: “One time, I desperately needed someone to talk to. They have a crisis line in town. I went down there, and the first thing the lady did was hand me a piece of paper to fill out, what my income was, what my insurance would cover.” The inescapable conclusion of this show is that as much as the poor are broken, the rest of us who recognize their plight and can’t be moved to do something substantive to fix it are broken too.

Eugene Richards Below the Line: Living Poor in America is on view at the Bronx Documentary Center (614 Courtlandt Avenue) in the South Bronx until November 6th.

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