It’s been almost 30 years since the publication of Eugene Richards‘ landmark book “Below the Line: Living Poor in America.” The book, though acclaimed at the time, was also controversial. Critics applauded the revealing nature of the stories, but often added, almost in the same breath, that what was being shown was a negative view of the country, one that lacked hope. Pushed to reply, Richards countered that these stories were, in fact, portraits in courage. Each person encountered on his journey across America was struggling, against great odds, to better him or herself.
Published by Consumer Reports Books in 1987, “Below the Line” consisted of taped interviews and photographs made by Richards during a seven-month journey across America in 1986 visiting poor rural and urban communities in 11 states from Massachusetts to Wyoming. Richards writes:
“As one person’s history unfolded, I was often directed towards others. When I was with embattled farmers in South Dakota, I was moved to think of the migrant laborers who also worked the land, yet have no title to it. The family I visited in the Tennessee Mountains was barely hanging onto their ancestral homeland. How must it be, then, for people newly arrived in this country that must adapt to a new language, different customs, to an inhospitable economy? In the Arkansas Delta, the grandchildren of the aging and weary sharecroppers I photographed could barely wait to get away from home, to Chicago or New York, which held more promise for them… ”
Eugene Richards is a photographer, writer, and documentary filmmaker who has authored 17 books, the most recent being “War Is Personal” (Many Voices Press, 2010), a documentation in words and pictures of the human consequences of the Iraq War, and “Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down” (Many Voices Press, 2014), which speaks of life in the Arkansas Delta decades ago and today. Among numerous honors, Mr. Richards has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, and the Kraszna-Krausz Award for Photographic Innovation in Books. He was the recipient of the 1987 International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Photographic Reportage for “Below the Line: Living Poor in America.” His photographs are represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the International Center of Photography, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among others. For more information, go to his website.
On the occasion of its fifth anniversary in October 2016, the Bronx Documentary Center (BDC), a nonprofit gallery and educational space whose mission is to share documentary photography, film, and new media with underserved Bronx communities and the cultural community at large, is honored to present “Below the Line: Living Poor in America” by Eugene Richards. The exhibition features more than two dozen black-and-white photographs from Richards‘ seminal project depicting the extent of poverty in the United States in the mid-1980s. The project garnered Richards the 1987 International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Photographic Reportage.
The BDC’s Melrose neighborhood in the Bronx remains one of America’s poorest communities, located just four subway stops away from one of the country’s wealthiest, the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It is the BDC’s hope that Richards‘ powerful exhibition will stimulate a dialogue between the local communities it serves and the world at large about actionable steps to fight poverty.