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The Blue Room

A photographer hints at the stories behind the emptiness of abandoned houses.

There is no photo of a blue room in Eugene Richards’s The Blue Room. In fact, there is little color anywhere in this book even though it is Richards’s first published color project.

Richards is internationally recognized as the premier, unapologetic torch carrier for provocative black-and-white images of neglected people living in difficult circumstances. One might assume that this collection – with its focus on abandoned homes rather than people or current events – would be a departure from the usual. One would be wrong.

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Abandoned houses are clichéd fodder for photographers who relish the geometry of a broken staircase or the abstraction of peeling wallpaper. Richards, instead, photographs the people not there. The colors are incidental, peeping through the darkness and remaining understated even in full light.

Richards suggests stories about the houses’ former occupants through the discarded photos, broken toys, dishes, clothing, and other ephemera that litter surfaces. He treats what is left behind with reverence, provoking our curiosity. He wants us to see what he sees: rural Americans whose lives are difficult, sweet, both tender and tough, and often fragile.

And there are surprises. An alert young barn owl challenges the intruder with a determined stare. A pristine satin wedding dress hangs from a hook on a bedroom door. A sheer curtain blows softly through a bright room in painterly fashion.

Richards has wandered the fiercest and the saddest places on earth for most of his career, yet his journalistic integrity has never dampened his affection for the people and places he photographs. At a recent lecture he suggested that current photojournalism relies more on mood than on straight reporting. “I still treasure the photographer who can be precise.” Richards’s work is celebrated because his piercing insight is directed toward our hearts as well as our heads.

Joanne Ciccarello is a Monitor photo editor.