American documentary photographer Jim Goldberg shoots long-term projects about marginalised groups. He is best known for his 1995 project Raised By Wolves, about homeless children in San Francisco, but ten years earlier he published Rich and Poor, an extensive series on rich and poor people in their houses in San Francisco. Originally shot between 1977 and 1985, Rich and Poor was published in 1985 by Random House and soon sold out. It is now republished by Steidl.
Goldberg's method was to take a photo and then ask the person in the photo to comment on the image by writing in the surrounding whitespace. These finished images therefore portray not only the person but also their stories, written in their own handwriting. The strength of this combination of text and image probably lies in the way in which the photos show real life situations, but the viewer is given room to imagine, too. That makes the photos a bit like little novels.
For example, in one photo we see a young girl sitting on a high stool in front of a window, with a large bag of Calrose rice resting in a bucket next to her. She holds her hands up behind the net curtain, giving her arms a ghostlike appearance, yet her eyes are clear and piercing. “I look ugly and serius [sic]," she writes in a childish scrawl, “I wish I had money then I can look and be who I want to be – Nola". The viewer can only wonder what it is that the girl wants to be, though it's possible to imagine what the girl's life is like in that house, eating rice every day, and probably living with younger siblings, as evidenced by a pacifier seen among scattered kitchen utensils on the corner of a messy table.
I wish I had money then I can look and be who I want to be
Another little story offered by a photo: in an almost empty room with just one bed and a radiator with peeling paint, a man sits in the corner on one side of the room and a woman lays on the bed on the other side. The accompanying text, apparently written by the man, says: “looks likes my mindis million miles away and looks likes she smiles for camera but not smiling inside". He continues that he believes he will “make it in this world, you'll see".
The rich people in the book aren't much happier. Their houses look clean and comfortable, kids show off their many toys, and adults their fine clothes and expensive furniture, but they often look away from the camera, worried or avoidant, and their texts are usually plaintive: “(...) in my world there are problems too", one woman writes in very neat handwriting, underneath a photo of her standing in front of large panorama windows overlooking San Francisco. “Poorer people's lives are less complicated. They do not have to worry about running such a big house, the boat needing constant repairs, or the servants wearing spotless white uniforms."
Though Goldberg's photography is based in documentary, the combination of photo and text makes sure the works aren't too straightforward, communicating the complexity of any person's life. While on one level the photos might convey the political message that we should fix the imbalance between poor and rich, on another level, the photos, with the help of the texts, open up one's imagination about people's personal lives beyond the simple finding that they are poor or rich. The complete series illustrates the trouble that, whether poor and rich, all people are stuck in their own lives: for poor people there seems to be only false hope that their conditions will one day improve, and rich people have problems of a different kind which might only increase as their wealth grows.
Included in this re-issue is a small insert of contemporary photos. A long panorama of photographs is printed on a single piece of harmonica folded paper, taking you on a walk down the street. On one side of the paper is a rich San Francisco street, the other a poor street: still two different worlds.
Rich and Poor is available from its publisher Steidl.