With a recent announcement on the crowd funding platform Kickstarter, award-winning photographer Eugene Richards speaks to LightBox about his latest book, Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down, and his motivation to self-publish the project. The following text is adapted from a recent email correspondence.
LightBox: Tell us about the book.
Eugene Richards: Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down speaks of life in the Arkansas delta, a place that I came to know just over forty years ago when I spent more than four years there working first as a VISTA volunteer, then as a social worker and reporter. My book is about what it was like back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, a time when cotton, poverty, and racism shaped people’s lives. This is shown in black-and-white photographs that have never been published before. But the book is also about the place now, a place that has been called by some the heart of the south. I’ve interwoven recent color work with the black-and-white photographs and a short story that relates my relationship with an impoverished delta woman, but also addresses my own concerns with aging and mortality.
LB: How many years of work does it span?
ER: There are close to 50 photographs in my not-quite-finished design, approximately half black-and-white, half color. The black-and-white photographs were made between 1969 and 1972, although a few of these were made in 1986. All but one of the color photographs were made in 2010.
LB: When did you realize that you have another book?
ER: It was in 2010 that I returned to the delta on assignment for National Geographic. My first impulse was to try to find evidence of what I experienced there during my early years, only to realize that, with a few exceptions, most everyone and everything that I knew was gone. But the memories of my time there persisted. And even as I was photographing for the magazine, it would seem that the past was overlapping the present. But it wasn’t until this past winter that I went back into my black-and-white contact books and found photographs that I had never noticed before, even though in 1973 I authored a book, Few Comforts or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta. First off, and this might sound strange to some, I never made contact sheets back then of the Arkansas work; I didn’t have the money to do so. So going back through the contact sheets that were eventually made in the late ’70s was a kind of discovery. And as I did so, I began to see the relationship between then and now in the delta.
LB: Why are you turning to Kickstarter for support?
ER: I’m very fortunate to have been able to publish as many books as I have, though–and I’m speaking for other photographers here as well–authoring books can be a desperate business. You do them because you have to do them as part of what I guess you call the creative process. But on the other hand, they involve a huge amount of time and expense and small, if any, financial return. I’ve self-published books in the past, most notably Dorchester Days, a book about the neighborhood where I was born and raised. And rather than not have it published at all, I co-published Exploding Into Life, which chronicled my first wife’s battle with breast cancer. Then in 2010, after approaching something like seven publishers, I had no choice but to self-publish War Is Personal, my book which chronicles the human consequences of the Iraq war. So I’m not new to the idea of self-publishing. And because this book is one that encompasses issues of race, poverty, and aging, it’s one that would not be wholly embraced in a business sense by traditional publishers. After being unceremoniously turned down by two publishers that I’ve worked with in the past (who most likely don’t see a profit in it) and after being asked by a couple of others to provide as much as eighty percent of the production costs, I decided to go it alone again. Which may, in the end, be the only way to produce this book in a true-to-the-material and innovative fashion. So for all these reasons, I’m turning to Kickstarter as a way of asking people to assist in the publication of the book.
Paul Moakley is the deputy photo editor at TIME. You can follow him on Twitter @paulmoakley.