Rich and Poor

Jim Goldberg
Steidl, 2014

Reviewed by Leo Hsu

All images © Rich and Poor by Jim Goldberg published by Steidl

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Over several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jim Goldberg photographed and interviewed occupants of a residential hotel in San Francisco, and asked the subjects of his photographs to comment on the photograph in their own hand. He began by asking “If you were going to die or leave this room tomorrow, and this picture were going to be hung up on the door as a remembrance of you, what would you say?” but with more time spent, he proceeded to more complex questions, exploring the relationship between the environment and the residents’ outlook. Goldberg then photographed the wealthy trustees of his art school, and similarly asked them to comment on their environments and outlooks.

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Goldberg’s Rich and Poor was reissued by Steidl this year in a reimagined and redesigned edition, but I first encountered the book shortly after it was originally published in 1985. I was a teenager, interested in photography, and was fortunate to have found a mentor, the late Jo Leggett, who introduced me to the range of possibility in the medium at that moment. She showed me a lot of work that moved or excited me, but Rich and Poor stood out from the rest. The book’s conceit – photographs of rich and poor, with the subjects’ own words handwritten on the prints - was as simple as the effect was profound. It dealt with two worlds to which I had no access, and provided not only the photographer’s observations, but the voices of the inhabitants as well.

The book presents a powerful assemblage of perspectives and stories that show a range of experiences among both rich and poor. The lives of the poor are portrayed as precarious, and those of the rich as secure to the point of being sterile and inert. But Goldberg’s case, that these two worlds are alien to one another in their trappings, yet similar in their possibility for individual misery, dignity, or love, is clear and well argued. The statements range from reserved to confessional and are often surprising in the vulnerability that they display. Two men sit on a bed in the residential hotel: “Manny loves me, but I am too strong to love him,” writes one, and “This photo makes me want to cry,” writes the other. Later in the book another young man sitting on his bed writes, “ This pictures is about having everything I want. I don’t have to struggle- but I want to struggle. I wish I could say I was interested in changing the human condition but everything I see tells me nothing will work especially if it gets in the way of my happiness.”

Much of the strength of the book is in its multiple juxtapositions: the juxtaposition of photographic image and handwritten text as two different documentary modes; the juxtaposition of Goldberg’s looking at his subjects and his subjects speaking for themselves; the dissonance between the worlds of the rich and the poor, expressed in how they appear to Goldberg and their choice of words, even the differences in handwriting. Rich and Poor’s themes emerge through the narrative constructed around the many voices within. The result is a kind of sociological knowledge imbued with a powerful emotional valence. A New York Times review of the original edition interpreted the subjects’ statements as secondary to the photographs, but I always felt that the strength of the book was Goldberg’s insistence that we hear the people he has met, speaking in their own voice, or at least, their own handwriting.

It’s a mark of how much photography books have changed that multiple voicings and mixed media are now widely accepted in book design and not the exception. Steidl’s reissue of Rich and Poor is very much a 2014 photobook. The book itself, as an object, is beautiful; the reproductions are excellent and the design is stimulating. At first glance, the original book is almost presented as an artifact, a book within a book (remove the new dust jacket and the original cover is revealed). But the images have been reordered, and have been supplemented by other pictures, including more portraits and some observational images, as well as details enlarged to an extreme granularity and more contemporary work. The additional pictures are printed at full bleed, one, two or four to a spread, and interspersed, along with colorful endpapers, creating a more complex rhythm. We leave the hotel and go out into the world, on the street, at a diner, in the gardens of the wealthy. Our attention is drawn here and there, to a plate of food, a tennis court.  A surprising and effective pair of contemporary color panoramas are tipped into the back of the book.

But where in the first edition the inscribed prints, with their subjects’ declarations, formed the center and the totality of the book, they are in the 2014 edition just one element among several.  If the original was direct and visceral, the new edition diffuses the power of the original under the new material and redesign, in the service of a more complex experience. Bafflingly, an essay by Goldberg in the original, so revealing of his intentions and methods, is absent. Goldberg’s authority sits differently in the new edition; where the subjects’ subjectivities felt unrestrained by the documentary mode in the original, the inscribed prints now feel more like remembrances, less like testimony that the author wants us to hear. I experienced the new edition of the book as Goldberg’s reflection on a thirty-year old body of work, more in his head than in the heads of the people in the photographs.

Nonetheless, we are fortunate to have this book available again. Goldberg’s subjects may be of another time but their stories are not; the fact that the distance between rich and poor is today greater than it was thirty years ago, is if anything, more reason to revisit Goldberg’s project. As Goldberg explains in his original essay: “everyone is hurt by class disparities. The stories most of us believe are actually the antithesis of what we should be taught. Races are pitted against races, old against young, oppressed against oppressed. When our stories are kept from one another, when we are alienated from one another, ignorance helps to maintain the status quo.”

Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here

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