I recently drove over an hour through old dark country roads to deliver some money to a girl. She and I had only met once before, and since then she had revealed her heroin addiction to me. She was trying to kick the habit, and needed money for another type of drug that would help her wean herself off of the hard stuff. I wanted to hand over the cash in person to the dealer who would supply her with what she needed, so as to make sure she wouldn’t use it for more “puppyfood” as she called it.
Driving back home, I felt a deep ache in my chest. It felt something like the weight of humanity hitting me in the face. Part of me felt like I had wasted my time and money to help a stranger. It was only later that I realized it was all just a part of life, of hard human experiences and the thin, fleeting connections we make along the way, struggling to keep the lights on and our hearts beating.
Roger Richardson’s Let Me Sow Love somehow came to the forefront of my mind around this time. The book is standard American documentary fare – landscapes interspersed with portraits, with some environmental still lifes and detail shots mixed in. Richardson documents the people and places of the Hudson Valley, a region in the state of New York. The work at first feels very familiar – in fact overly similar to many other contemporary documentary projects – but it slowly unravels itself to be more than the sum of its parts.
The simplest way to put it is that there is an indescribable, unifying mood – a semblance of some misty, faded sense of hope – in the images. There is a balance between bleakness and light within the atmosphere. When viewed together in the sequence, the photographs become a mirror. We can see ourselves, our homes, the streets we grew up on, the summer light at dusk hitting pavement. We see our own lives reflected back at us through the familiarity of the scenes and subjects.
The photographs become a mirror. We can see ourselves, our homes, the streets we grew up on, the summer light at dusk hitting pavement. We see our own lives reflected back at us through the familiarity of the scenes and subjects.
Let Me Sow Love is simple in its design – staid and stoic. Salmon pink endpapers add a much needed embellishment and a pop of color to the book, an otherwise minimal, monochromatic slab of an object.
Richardson’s black and white images are contrasty and technically sound. The compositions are clean, albeit not the most original. Many of the pictures are center-weighted, and familiar motifs recur often throughout the book: hands holding things, objects on the ground, people staring off into the distance contemplatively as the shutter is pressed.
Still, the photographs achieve something I can’t quite put my finger on. The landscapes are shot in a way that appears almost carefree and naive, like how a child would look upon a scene and point out something unassuming and overlooked to their mother. Each portrait seems to tell the story of a life, something that is hard to find in most other bodies of work. It takes something unnamable, an invisible force or innate ability to maintain a connection with a subject, to make portraits that uphold the dignity of the human being in front of the lens, and to give the viewer a reason to care. Photographers such as Vanessa Winship possess this ability, and Richardson is surprisingly not too far behind.
It takes something unnamable, an invisible force or innate ability to maintain a connection with a subject, to make portraits that uphold the dignity of the human being in front of the lens, and to give the viewer a reason to care.
People, places, things. Life as we know it. Faced with the future and marked by the past. Sometimes we can see it all in a flash; sometimes it’s too dark to see anything at all, like those roads I drove down that night. The next morning, I received a text message from the girl I had attempted to help. It read: