Visual research and analysis – social contrasts

Brassaï – Paris By Night

Brassaï (Gyula Halász) documented Paris between the wars, in particular the night life of that city. I’ve picked out two photographs taken in the same year.

This one, titled “In a café, Paris” shows two people in a café who seem very much in love.

Although the café itself doesn’t seem the most glamorous and exotic of places, their clothes and demeanour suggest two people who have comfortable lives, perhaps not the richest but without significant worries.

From the same year, his photograph “Two toughs” shows two young men who do not belong in the same carefree and comfortable world. Indeed they very much look as though they would quite happily steal whatever they could get from the photographer

These are just two of the photographs from this period, many of which were published in his 1933 book “Paris by night”. These two do highlight the differences between the haves and have nots, but from the rest of his photographs from this period he shows that in fact there is a very thin line between these two categories. It is part of the appeal of “Paris by night” that the divide between having and not having was very vague.


Paul Graham – American Night

Paul Graham’s project “American Night” documents a similar “have/have not” split but uses an unusual approach to highlight this difference.

He applies a distinctive ‘blown out’ effect to images of – mostly black – people in open urban spaces, in what would otherwise appear to be broad daylight. These are interspersed with bright images of show homes that could almost be taken from estate agents sales brochures. The effect is to visualise the impossibility of the ‘American Dream’ for a significant part of the non-white population. Unlike Brassaï, where I used two images from his work to illustrate this split, “American Night” works best as a complete set. It would be hard to pick two from this set without losing the full impact.


Nadav Kander – Yangtze, The Long River

This photobook shows photographs taken during a journey along China’s Yangtze river between 2006 and 2008. This was a time of massive social change in China, and this project shows how this affected everyone and everything. As well as showing the environmental effects, it also demonstrates the social changes this rapid growth was causing. I have picked out one particular photograph from this set as it epitomises every aspect of this change in a single image.

Three people stand and sit on a river bank and look across the river to the other side. On the far side are huge buildings; skyscrapers and road bridges constructed over a short period of time. The image implies these people have been left behind; there is no place for them in the bright new future. They are abandoned along with the half-constructed bridge that dominates their side of the river. It works as a very strong metaphor for how there are always winners and losers when this scale of social change is imposed on people.

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