A wall from the Eugene Richards Retrospective at the International Center of Photography.

Is life fair? Children raised to believe that there is some moral structure and justice learn to believe in the world. But as adults we have to face facts, that life is decidedly not fair. Tragedy can happen to anyone at any time. Good people, young people, can get ill, suffer and die. Children are killed every day, the poor are born to suffer. For many who suffer, there is little chance of escape.

WHAT: Eugene Richards: The Run-On of Time
WHERE: International Center of Photography, 250 Broadway, New York City
WHEN: Extended through January 20, 2019

Photographer Eugene Richards has spent the past 50 years chronicling the lives of those dealt a raw hand in life — the bullied, the forgotten, the disenfranchised, the sick and injured — and has done so with eloquence and a unique poetic vision. His awareness of the meanness of life, and how people endure, makes his work heartbreakingly powerful to anyone with a drop of empathy.

Richards’ retrospective at the International Center of Photography Museum highlights his best work from his own personal archives. A member of the Magnum collective, his work has often been reproduced in book form and in photodocumentary essays in magazines and other publications, but not often shown in galleries. It is an overdue career review for a photographer who is one of America’s underrated giants. One or two of his major projects fill each room of the gallery in roughly chronological order, organized in such a way that makes each project distinct and more memorable.

Richards became a working photojournalist after completing studies at MIT with Minor White. He became a civil rights activist and moved to rural Arkansas as a VISTA volunteer. It is here the show begins with photos from the Vietnam era, reporting the quiet desperation of the poor black communities in the South: losing their sons to the war, hopelessly trapped in rural poverty with the legacy of slavery and racism casting a shadow over their existence.

Richards’ intimate studies burrow deep into the hearts of his subjects and his respect for their dignity is apparent throughout. His connection is what makes the show so powerful and poignant. In “A Procession of Them,” his portraits of residents in insane asylums in South America communicate the pathos of a segment of society that is unwanted, shunned and treated with cruelty. Richards never exploits his subjects, even in this extreme and grotesque setting. His compassion for their lot in life is always present. There is no ridicule, no surreal statements made at the expense of victims.

His subjects include blatant race hatred in Boston, Iraq war veterans, emergency rooms, the sick, the abandoned. Even when he turns his lens on his own family, he does not hold back. He bravely documents his first wife’s journey from diagnosis of breast cancer to her death five years later. Beginning with a portrait of her beautiful body and vibrant spirit, he unflinchingly depicts her tremendous courage after the disfigurement of a mastectomy, the ebbing of her hope and her health and her final treatments. Elsewhere in the show, there are tender images of the birth of his son with his second wife and photographs of his aging parents.

Most of Eugene Richards work is black and white, but in 2004 he began to shoot in color, and moved from people to places. “There is an arguable permanence about black and white,” Richards said in 2013. “One feels like the place or subject you have photographed has been here forever and you get the impression that if you went back it would still be there. Color has a feeling of impermanence about it. It’s the difference between the emotional and the intellect.”

Looking east from Ground Zero at dusk, New York, NY. 2001 (Eugene Richards from Stepping Through the Ashes, Aperture 2002).

His color project, “The Blue Room” from 2008, documents deserted homes in impoverished towns throughout the Midwest. The work is intensely sad yet lyrical and beautiful. It charts the passage of misfortune through striking images of the detritus of abandoned lives. In his own words, the photographs are about “life and death and how little time there is.”

Not to be missed is a viewing room that projects four of his projects shown as videos of stills with his voiceover narration. Soft-spoken but articulate, he is as succinct and his metaphors are as powerful as his images. It is hard to watch “Stepping Through the Ashes,” which documents lower Manhattan post-9/11, without breaking into tears. Boxes of tissues are thoughtfully placed in the corners of the room.

There are thousands of gifted photographers in the world but what makes one great is courage and conviction, risking safety in pursuit of art. Eugene Richards is all that. His compassion, his noble commitment to championing the underprivileged coupled with his incredible artistic gift, his singular, exquisite composition and talent for metaphor make him one of photography’s greats.