Noir film

By CLIF GARBODEN  |  March 3, 2009

The brilliance of Berndt's photography is twofold. What he photographs is always interesting, despite being only occasionally driven by action. And his compositions impart a credible sense of place, mirroring the perspective of an observer rather than that of an artist or a documentarian. This combination of drawing purpose out of blank stares and minor intimacies in unmanipulated environments ensures that you'll never forget what he's shown you. It's powerful stuff. Sad? Disturbing? Only if you choose to see it that way, or if you've never accepted life at those levels.

Insight gives us a demi-monde tour without the traditional affectations. (The Emma series is a hilarious and hip diversion.) In a genre overrun with self-absorbed photo tourists, that's worth a lot.

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NEAR FORTUNA, NORTH DAKOTA, SEPTEMBER 2006 Richards abstracts isolation with a series that amounts to photographing dreary ghosts in large-format color.

Gene Richards has no fear of looking misery in the eyes and taking its picture. Most of his books prior to The Blue Room have been stinging explorations of human suffering. But in this, his first published non-commercial color project, the humanity is only implied by his large-format portraits of the ruins and artifacts found in abandoned houses.

The Blue Room's 78 full-page color plates are beautiful, and technically impressive (the book itself measures 16 by 11 inches), but the content overpowers the exquisite technique. It's not a pretty-picture book. The subjects? Fractured toys, mummified vermin, yards overgrown and choked to death, rusted furniture, abandoned clothing, weather-ravaged walls and ceilings, stopped clocks — things that decayed where they were forgotten. A few of the settings, all rural American and Western, are houses Richards knew when they were occupied; the rest, as he explains in the back-of-the-book "working notes," evoke strong memories that are neither his nor the former tenants'.

The sentimental clout of these pictures, of course, is that you can't help reading poignant back stories into each grimy souvenir that emerges in crisp detail from the murky color schemes. Sometimes a shot provokes an obvious, if puzzling, fantasy — a wedding dress left hung on a bedroom door. Others are more difficult to read — a floor littered with a haphazard cluster of men's shoes, sheet music, and 78-record sleeves. One way or another, however, every picture tells a story of poverty (these were not wealthy homes) and, by implication, failure, disappointment, and dreams deferred. Richards's stated theme is impermanence, and that, like Jerry Berndt's views from the urban lower rungs, can be construed as sad. Or perhaps enduring.

EUGENE RICHARDS LECTURE | BU Photonics Building [Rm 206], 8 St. Mary's St, Boston | March 5 at 7 pm | Non-member admission $15 | 617.975.0600 [Photographic Resource Center] or www.bu.edu/prc/programs.htm

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