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The Fat Baby – Eugene Richards

BOOK REVIEW: The Fat Baby – Eugene Richards.

Every now and again someone has an idea so blindingly obvious it is difficult to see why it has not already been done.

Take the Magnum photographers for example.  They spend their lives chasing stories; stories are their raison d’ètre.  Sure they publish books on particular stories:  Larry Towell has The Mennonites, and Paul Fusco has RFK Funeral Train.  They even have collective books on given stories, like New York September 11, and Arms Against Fury, but generally they are retrospectives.

The Fat Baby is the new book from Eugene Richards, one of the brightest stars in the Magnum firmament.  It bucks the trend with something really unique: a retrospective of stories.  Rather than put together a large coffee table tome of great images taken out of context which would undoubtedly sell, Richards has chosen to publish the original stories as he took them, with his own notes or text alongside.  This may not be ground breaking stuff, but on a book of this size (432 pages with some 300 duotone images) it feels as though it is.

Richards’ work is powerful, poignant and eloquent.  The images stand on their own merits in isolation, but put into the context originally envisaged the effect is magnified.  They really do become greater than the sum of their parts.

Now sixty years old, Richards is well established as one of the leading exponents of the photoessay, and could easily have chosen to use work from throughout his distinguished career.  Any such retrospective would have been well received, but one suspects that he might look upon the retrospective as the preserve of retired photographers.  Make no mistake; Eugene Richards is very active, and The Fat Baby draws only on his considerable pool of recent stories. 

Arguably Richard’s greatest achievement, and indeed the reason he is able to gain access to groups of people who might otherwise be hostile to his advances, is the manner in which he gives voice to other people’s stories without being judgemental.

While there are many photographers who view “concerned photojournalism” as an invitation and means to voice their own views, the real genius of Richard’s narrative is the manner in which he presents deeply moving stories and leaves the reader to form their own opinion.  This is no small achievement, and one suspects it is a large part of his reason for producing the book.  While his Magnum credentials give him considerable clout when it comes to the use of his images and captions, he nevertheless often finds his photographs being used as mere illustrations to accompany text, which can put a completely different slant on a story to that which he may have intended.

The Fat Baby is a collection of 15 essays, with subjects ranging from gay parenting issues in Tuscon (Here’s to Love), to the famine suffered by the villagers of Safo in Niger (The Fat Baby – from which the book takes its name).

By reproducing the notes and keeping the original narrative of the stories together, it invites the reader to consider the issues: it provokes a response.  No one who professes to support what documentary photography is about should ignore The Fat Baby.  It is a monumentally important book.  Not simply because it is well produced, but because it actually gets back to the root of why pictures such as these are made in the first place.

The Fat Baby by Eugene Richards, £59.95/€90.00, Phaidon Press, March 2004.

This review was originally written for the Photographic Journal
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