Looking at 'Rich and Poor,' 37 Years Later

Aug 22, 2014

From 1977 to 1985, photographer Jim Goldberg pointed his 35-mm camera at the affluent and indigent of San Francisco. Roaming the dilapidated halls of a single-room-occupancy hotel and ringing the doorbells of the privileged, he created a photographic record of economic disparity. The details of his images—crumpled pages of magazines torn out and tacked to walls as decoration in the rooms of hotel residents, lavish Persian rugs, chandeliers, and elaborate fireplaces with detailed moldings in private residences—tell a story of income inequality in America.

"Rich and Poor," the collection of grainy black-and-white portraits he made, is now regarded as a seminal work for the photography community. Reissued this summer in a completely redesigned edition, with new contributions from the photographer, Goldberg's work is getting renewed attention, at a time when the gulf between classes is still dominating headlines.

Like Studs Terkel, whose landmark oral history Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do came out a few years before Goldberg started his project, the photographer invited his subjects to offer their own accounts of life in the top and bottom strata of American society. In careful cursive or hasty scrawl, they captioned their own images, revealing their hopes and dreams, commenting on their economic and social standing, and offering observations about the way Goldberg portrayed them. What started out as photojournalism instead became collaboration. "I wanted to open up the discussion and ask interesting questions about how discussions of wealth and poverty are framed," Goldberg says, "and look at the language that is used to describe them, and who gets to use that language."

Shown with her husband and son in the tight quarters of a hotel room with crumbling, graffiti-covered plaster walls, Linda Benko wrote about her family portrait, "This picture says we are a very emotional and tight family, like the three musketteers [sic]. Poverty sucks, but it brings us closer together."

The series was first published as a softcover by Random House in 1985 and soon went out of print (unsigned First Editions of Rich and Poor in "very fine" condition can be upwards of $500, a far cry from the original list price of $15.95). Goldberg's experimental work sat squarely in the canon of collective visual and audio documentation projects preserving the faces and stories that define our national history. (The tradition continues even today, with projects like StoryCorps booths that allow subjects to interview and record acquaintances and family members.) In 2002, Goldberg's work on Rich and Poor and his subsequent book about runaways, Raised by Wolves, earned him a prestigious position in the photographic co-operative Magnum Photos and numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Henry Cartier-Bresson Award.

Following on the heels of the Great Recession, the 2014 republication of Rich and Poor comes at a time when the middle class continues to shrink, furthering the economic divide. "The income disparity is greater now than ever before," Goldberg observes. "In terms of the climate, one of the most significant changes is that there is increased consciousness about these inequalities." We see it in reality shows about how the other half lives—shows like "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" that delve into the aspirational lives of wealthy celebrities, or ABC's Secret Millionaire, which explores the daily struggle of the lower class and middle classes.

Goldberg cites his own shift in perspective as a reason why he wanted to revisit the work. In the afterword of the original Rich and Poor, he wrote about how, when he was growing up in New Haven, Conn., in the 1950s and '60s, he would go for drives with his parents on Sundays through the wealthier neighborhoods, pointing out the big houses with mock envy. "Now I’m part of the middle class; that is different, too," he says today. "So I’m seeing this issue from a different point of view than I had while making the photographs."

LightBox interviewed Goldberg in the early stages of his collaboration with publisher Steidl. Incorporating vintage images from the original publication, as well as contemporary photographs that have never before been shown, the new 222-page hardcover edition of the book is part personal journal for Goldberg, part collective American scrapbook album. He reflected on how the design of the book breathes new life into the work:

The accordion fold-out that is included in the new edition is intended to bring present day into dialogue with the past. The idea for the covers of the insert (two portraits) was to photograph a rich person and a poor person from the original book. Between their two faces, as you unfold the book, are the current streets of San Francisco where the poor and rich live. These street shots are stitched together into an expansive panoramic… again, as a way to locate the place where these subjects live, or lived. For the wealthy portrait, I re-photographed OJ, who now splits her time between a large flat in San Francisco and an estate in Napa. As for David Benko, I used to see him on the streets of San Francisco when I was shooting for Raised by Wolves. While creating this new Rich and Poor, I did an internet search, and I found this picture of David Benko, who died, after being homeless on the streets of Texas.

Goldberg's afterword in the new edition reveals his own idealism and optimism, even while revisiting a project that documents one of the darker issues plaguing the country. "I have a more nuanced view now about what photographs can and cannot do to address economic disparities, but I remain fascinated by my original impulse to undertake the project," he writes. "I believed, I really believed, that once people saw what was happening, then we, as a society, would fix it. I am less naïve now, or at least I hope I am. But I can’t let go of the desire, the impulse, to want to believe in a society where things really will get better."

This is the first post in The Photo Bank, a new section of Money.com dedicated to photography. From images that document the broader economy to ones that explore more personal concerns like paying for college, travel, retirement, advancing your career, or even buying groceries, The Photo Bank will showcase a spectrum of the best work being produced by emerging and established artists. Submissions are encouraged and should be sent to Sarina Finkelstein, Online Photo Editor for Money.com: sarina.finkelstein@timeinc.com.

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