The Fat Baby is a 432-page compilation of Magnum photojournalist Eugene Richards’ work that spans 15 stories during the 1990s. From the off, it’s an intense journey that you feel compelled to take, sometimes against your first instinct. To explain: firstly, most of the stories document those who live on the margins, be they the mentally ill at an asylum in Hidalgo, Mexico, or those suffering from alcoholism in Chicago, USA, and turning the page often makes one feel voyeuristically intrusive. Secondly, shot on black/white, Richards’ up-close photographic style leaves the viewer nowhere to go – except to turn away, and what’s the point of that? Lastly, it’s relentless. Story after story, each one is an intensely confrontational and demanding rollercoaster ride. But neither is there any let up in pace or quality and that’s what makes it so damn good. But let’s go back to the beginning.

“A flower in the desert” is the opening story that comes ’atcha like a bullet from a gun. It’s an in-your-face series of images of two families as they attempt to come to terms with the fact that the 10-year-old son of one family was convicted of pushing the child of the other family to his death from the 14th floor of an apartment block in Chicago’s South Side.

Shot on assignment for American Esquire, it introduces motifs that are a thread through Richards’ stories: up close, snatched, black/white images of people playing, fighting, laughing, crying and grieving. It’s intrusive and, initially, seems insensitive until one reads that the family invited Richards to photograph them. The combination of pictures and narrative is instructive but also disquieting: the journalism is littered with authorial intrusion: “I have to admit I’m not in a good mood”; “It’s better to be sitting here in this apartment than standing up at that window”. When read alongside the images, the effect is unsettling as we are “reading” the story of others’ lives through the pictures, while simultaneously the author of the photographs is telling the story through prose, and including his own thoughts at the time in the written story.

Such is the effect, I half expected him to complete the circle and appear at the end of the photo story with a caption “and here’s a picture of me with the whole family”. Certainly, this is a European sensibility at work (the technique is used to critical acclaim by American author Adrian Nicole Smith [with whom Richards has worked] in her docu-novel Random Family), and perhaps the secret is to read the pictures at one sitting, and the words at another, rather than move from one to another, seeking immediate clarification and understanding.

The next story after“the wore-out farm”, a poignantly realised elegy for US farming, is “a little war”. Here, Richards documents the long, empty, drug-fuelled days of the Fremont Hustlers, a 70-strong gang of adolescent youths in Kansas City. In his by now familiar intimate but unobserved style, we are introduced first to Lori, the 18-year-old gang leader, and then Sarah, “[She] had the palest blue eyes, which, no matter what, always looked worried, and dead white skin, meaning it had a greyish hue and no shine.” We see the “boys”, looking out of it, cocking guns, checking their arsenal and intimidating the “girls”. Later, several of the gang are recorded at the cemetery, ostensibly paying their respect to a dead gang member. However, one can’t help but wonder if, as Richards seemingly implies and however subconsciously, they are preparing themselves for a fate, given their lifestyle, that may be theirs before much longer.

The gang’s journey, as documented by Richards, demonstrates the recurring theme through his work: life and death – literally. The latter we have witnessed in “a little war” and “a flower in the desert” but it is demonstrably the subject matter of “dr. death”, a series of images of the victims of violent homicide, “the run-on of time”, a four-part study of ageing and dying in America, and “evolution”, a portrait of his father’s final years. Elsewhere, we witness literal and graphic birth in “the next step”, and “here’s to love”, both trademark reportages of the beginning of a new life, the former to a hetero-sexual couple, and the latter to a gay family.

In each essay one gets the sense of a proper storyteller knowing what he wants to achieve and realising it: each image has the same weight – there’s no money shot, or put another way, they are all money shots. In order to achieve such intimacy (to get so close to the individuals and for them to behave so naturally around him) one gets the impression Richards empathises with his subjects, and at times may do so too much for his own peace of mind, especially with particularly difficult stories such as “a flower in the desert”.

The musings that are reproductions from an A4 jotter that pass for The Fat Baby’s foreword are streams of consciousness put down on the page; almost incomprehensible, littered with crossings out, annotations and doodles, decipherable only to Richards, but one wonders if even by him. Similarly, there is seldom a beginning and an end to his narratives, or at any rate not conventional ones.

This may be doing Richards a disservice (and maybe it’s a style he’s worked hard at perfecting) but while skilfully rendered and highly descriptive in tone, the narratives presented in the book often are vignettes that seem to be something he’s got to get off his chest for fear his head might explode if he doesn’t.

Take “prospects”, where Richards tells the story of how his images of the 1992 Los Angeles riots are of the aftermath – a week later – because when he came to have his films developed of the days of the riot there was nothing on the 24 rolls of Tri-X. It’s a confessional, and a decade down the line he feels the need to reveal himself. It’s not delivered in a humorous aside, “look what happened to me”, or heaven forbid in a vainglorious “shit, it happens to the best of us” way. Rather, it’s as if it’s been a burden to carry the secret for so long and in telling what happened he’s publicly atoning.

Perhaps the need to expose himself (as his photographs do his subjects) is his motivation. Only he, if anyone, knows, but whatever drives Richards we should be thankful something does. There won’t be many more engrossing, dignified and profound photography books published in 2004, and probably for a few years yet.

Gordon Miller