When Eugene Richards visited a Chicago slum in 1986 to photograph a poor black family, he became more involved with them than he’d expected. The family hadn’t been able to pay their rent, so the landlord had turned off the electricity. Richards helped run an extension cord over from another apartment. When the landlord found out about that, he turned off the electricity to the entire building.

Sometimes it can be hard to draw the line between documenting a bad situation and trying to change it. But then Richards’s photos were taken with an eye toward social change. The photographs he took in Chicago formed one of the photo essays in his book Below the Line: Living Poor in America, published in 1987 by Consumers Union, which puts out Consumer Reports magazine, in honor of the organization’s 50th anniversary as a consumer advocacy group. Consumers Union asked Richards, a photojournalist with the Magnum picture agency, to do a series of photo essays documenting the face of poverty in the U.S. A selection of photos and excerpts from the book goes on display this week at the Chicago Historical Society.

Richards spent about seven months traveling to 14 different locations in 11 states, photographing South Dakota farmers, Tongan immigrants in southern California, and the residents of a shantytown on New York’s Lower East Side. Consumers Union wanted to send a writer with Richards, but the photographer insisted on taping interviews instead. “I thought the way to go would be to let people talk,” he says.

The result was an odd patchwork of a book: emotionally gripping and enormously varied, it demonstrates above all that people whose net annual income falls below some standard line may have little else in common. The lives portrayed here are diverse. Some–like those of the Chicago slum dwellers–seem truly abject and miserable. Some–like those of the South Dakota farmers–put on a face of middle-class respectability. Still others display a richness that has little to do with dollars.

“The book is kind of rambling,” says Richards, looking back at the project four years later.”I’m really intrigued by it, but some aspects of it still trouble me, like the idea of encapsulating ‘poor people.’ I didn’t want to call people ‘poor.’ Some of the people who had the least money had the richest lives.” He cites the family of Letta Casey and J.R. Worley, who live in Still House Hollow, Tennessee. By most standards, these people are–there’s that word–poor. They have no electricity or running water; a lot of their food comes from what they gather in the woods. But Casey says, “Even in the worst of times, I never did let things really, really get me down. . . . I always start looking for something that has some sunshine to it, some meaning to it, something to look forward to. Even if it’s only, hey, we’re going swimming today.”

The book contains several pictures of the family swimming and of other mundane activities. Richards says it took four days for the family to feel comfortable in his presence, but then they accepted him as virtually part of the family.

Richards shot in black and white, favoring a lot of close-ups and unexpected compositions: shots framed by car windows, or juxtapositions of a face, fuzzy from being too close to the lens, with another person off in the distance. A lot of faces are blown up large and bled to the edge of the page, showing every pore. Many of the photos are not easy to look at.

Much of the text has the same discomforting effect: it is full of tales of skimping, of intricate accountings of a few dollars and cents, of barely getting by on welfare checks or several jobs. There’s no explicit political agenda in the book, but Richards would like to see it draw forth a little more compassion for its subjects from the public and the media. “It has to be a very serious underlying problem,” he says. “I’m no economist, but it’s got to be an indicator when so many people hit the streets.”

“Below the Line: Living Poor in America” opens Sunday at the Chicago Historical Society and runs through October 29. The museum is at Clark Street and North Avenue, and it’s open 9:30 to 4:30 daily, noon to 5 Sunday. Admission is $1.50 for adults, 50 cents for seniors and children; it’s free on Mondays. For more information call 642-4600.