The George Eastman Museum in Rochester will open the first museum retrospective of the work of the photographer Eugene Richards on June 10. The exhibit, “Eugene Richards: The Run-On of Time,” covers his career as a photojournalist and documentary photographer from 1968 to the present and was produced in collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Curated by April Watson and Lisa Hostetler, the retrospective includes 146 photographs, 15 books, and selected videos. It is accompanied by a catalog distributed by Yale University Press.
Mr. Richards spoke with James Estrin about the exhibit and his career. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
I was surprised to hear that this was your first museum retrospective.
The museum world has quite a high border fence.
If you’re an artist then your intention is to make art. And if you have other objectives, then there are all kinds of divisions that separate out social documentary from what usually goes in museums.
Are these divisions reconcilable? Are you either an artist or a documentarian?
As a child, art was always something that was otherworldly or outside of my experience. To me the museum was just magic. I would go to a museum and look at one picture for the whole time. I remember my first adventure to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where there was a kind of Venus sculpture. And I’d never touched marble before, so I touched this statue and I remember the guard throwing me out. Now I realize this was a female figure, but I was a little boy and to me it was just all those odd wondrous shapes and marble.
The division has been there for ever and ever. If I brought my work today to MoMA they would give it back to me. Literally hand it right back.
Is documentary photography art?
I’ll just skip over the art thing and tell you that looking back at my whole body of work for the exhibit I confess I was a little bit taken aback by my own work. I never thought of it as rough as it really is. I’ve lived this life, met these people — and a lot of people I’ve photographed I’m still in touch with.
When I look at it now I realize, some of this stuff is pretty rough and more emotional than I remember it to be. I understand how people who think of art as something meditative and calm and elevating in a classic way could find the work disturbing.
I really don’t know what I feel about the work yet. Some of it I’m very happy about. There’s about 25 percent to 30 percent of the pictures in there that I’m very disappointed in, that could have been better.
After 40 years, I went back into my archive of Arkansas pictures when I was doing the “Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down” book (2014) and realized that all of the pictures…