Jim Goldberg: Rich and Poor

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I first came across prints from Jim Goldberg‘s Rich and Poor at Pier 24, the photography ego-seum in San Francisco. Of course, there is something ironic about seeing photographs that center on a society’s wealth disparity and its effects in a huge space that was financed by a very wealthy investment banker. This doesn’t mean I want to single out Andy Pilara and/or the space he created for and around his massive collection of photographs. After all, to a fairly large extent the world of art photography is built on, well, exactly this: very wealthy people buying pieces of paper, onto (or into) which photographs have been fixed, for a lot of money. And even if we were to ignore the world of galleries and collectors, to expand our view – the contemporary art photography scene essentially is based on a luxury position. Nobody needs photographs to survive. You need housing and food, but you don’t need photographs (or paintings or sculpture or ballet etc.).

I don’t mean to denigrate what artists do. Beyond the very basic needs everybody has, art does serve very important purposes. That said, I find it extremely important to keep in mind that even though these purposes are important, we’re still dealing with a luxury here. The moment you lose touch of this basic fact you might be in trouble. It’s a bit like worrying too much about “First World problems.” This term itself is problematic, because it pretends that problems people might suffer from in the Second or Third World are absent from the First. But the reality is they’re not. There are a lot of people in the First World that have Third World problems.

And this brings us back to Rich and Poor. The book’s idea is incredibly simple. Much like all incredibly simple ideas, its realization took many years (1977-85). The photographs were taken in San Francisco, a city that has recently been undergoing massive changes, given the influx of enormous amounts of tech money, resulting in all kinds of extremely ugly effects. Much like the island of Manhattan, San Francisco has become a place where it has become very hard, if not impossible, to live if you’re not making quite a bit of money. Add to that the recent discussions in the United States about the general wealth disparity – whether it’s in the form of talk of the 1% or in terms of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and it would seem that Rich and Poor is being reissued at just about the right time.

Elsewhere on this site, I wrote about Jim Goldberg and the Struggle of Photographic Storytelling, which can serve as a companion piece for this one. Rich and Poor relies on a simple strategy: having photographed his various subjects, Goldberg returned to them and had them write comments/captions on the prints. Here’s one: “Now I see a way out to a decent future. I’m tired of this shit, Drugs and pimping and all that stuff. Maybe now I have the courage to do something — anything. I don’t know, we will see. Jim Thanks. [signed:] Harold Graham (P.S.) I love you” (in these transcriptions, I try to be as close to the original spelling and grammar as possible) Or: “My Face Shows the intensity of a pained women I’ve been mugged and beaten. I didn’t ask for this mess. This makes me look like a Bum – I AM not. I am a fantastic Dorothy, A popular personality The nicest person in the hotel [signed:] Dorothy R 3-16-83” Or: “I Like TO BE ATTRACTIVE AND Distant. I Love The games, intrigue, AND MYSTERY OF being A WOMAN. TRUE Feminity is A great deal OF Power. I AM VERY Vain — I WISH I WAS THINNER. [signed:] Shannon” Or: “This picture does not reflect my personality. I am not an empty person. I have a lot of feelings and stand up for what I think. [signed:] OJ”

So there are all these photographs and comments by poor people and rich people, and on the surface, it would appear that we all share the same aspirations. And we do. The only difference being that some people’s insecurities and problems are, well, First World insecurities and problems, whereas other people have to worry about Third World problems – such as: how to get by? – while living in the same First World. Well, no, while we might share the physical space, the actual spaces we live in are quite different. This reissue of book comes with an accordion booklet, which shows, Ed Ruscha style, two strips of road, one for the rich, one for the poor.

“My Friend Jim the cameraman came and show me a mirror of my self” a man named Charles Johnson added to his picture. He is not the only one to mention the photographer, someone who would look out for all these people, whether rich or poor, to go back and bring back a photograph. To engage. Photography works best (or maybe most fully) when it engages, when the photographer possesses a large degree of empathy. It is, after all, easy to go out into the world, make some pictures, print them and then to sell them to the select few who have the money to be able to afford them. But I don’t think you can do that so easily if the amount of empathy you bring to your work is as large as Jim Goldberg’s. It’s a struggle – not just a photographic one, but also (mostly) one as a human being. And we better become aware of that struggle, because if we don’t, these photographs – along with their text – will become merely just another artifact in some ego-seum or one of the many books in our collections.

Rich and Poor (2014 reissue); photographs by Jim Goldberg; 222 pages plus accordion booklet; Steidl; 2014

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 5, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 4.0

Ratings explained here.