Henri Cartier-Bresson used to remark that he enjoyed taking photographs in England because it was like going to the theatre: everyone dressed for the part. His well-known photographs of the Coronation of George vi in 1937 speak to that interest, particularly of the crowd in Trafalgar Square, some of whom had been waiting all night for the procession, viewing it from the monument they had climbed, while below a man in a three-piece suit remains comfortably slumbering on a bed of newspapers. If that England was theatre, Dougie Wallace’s may first appear as pantomime or cartoon. In a series of books and exhibitions, Wallace has depicted the drinkers and clubbers of Shoreditch, hen and stag parties in Blackpool, the various gradations among the super-rich as they circle Harrods in a grotesque competition for social distinction, and most recently the mix of social elements in London’s East End. Of the Harrods denizens, in particular, Wallace was openly critical, both in photographs and prose, writing in 2015 in the British Journal of Photography that the scene is a story of ‘glut, greed and the wealth gap playing out on the streets of a city which has seen a 400 per cent rise in demand for food banks in the last year.’ His Twitter feed contains similar comments about inequality and the low-wage economy.

But then, photographically speaking, he is not particularly kind to anyone. A working-class photographer, originally from Glasgow, who served in the British Army, Wallace stalks the streets, seeking out and creating photographic confrontations. Using a digital slr with a wide-angle zoom, and two or three flash-guns attached, he works close to his subjects and does not mind if they react to his presence—which they do, frequently. In this, he is a little like William Klein who pushed his wide-angle lens into the faces of annoyed New Yorkers in the 1950s, causing ripples of discomfort which could be read as registering the city’s pall of alienation. The effect in Wallace is to produce a dizzying, gaily coloured array of expression, stance, gesture and fragmented detail. In his essay for East Ended, Paul Lowe describes the images as ‘kaleidoscopic’, which nicely captures their jangling array of bright colours and strange spatial arrangements. The effect of the more extreme wide-angle photographs to exaggerate the distance between near and far is countered by the flattening effects of flash to produce a sharply delineated but contradictory space in which the specimens are frozen. The use of several flash-guns turns the camera into a mini studio, says Wallace in a video interview for LensCulture, and indeed the fashion studio’s merciless illumination is turned on subjects who are mostly unprepared for it. The results are startlingly unfamiliar as flashlight, skilfully balanced with available light, illumines the effects of age and rough living, of intense partying and cosmetic surgery, along with the fine detail of dress and accessories.

East Ended stands out from Wallace’s other work which explored discrete social strata, for here on the streets of Shoreditch different ages, classes, races and religions are brought into collision. The area is notorious for its rapid and thoroughgoing gentrification in which street art has played a prominent role, as it was recast in the public imagination from criminal spoliation to decorative asset. Wallace has lived there for two decades, seeing and recording sweeping changes. The book’s resulting parade of vanities and frailties is not a pretty one. Indeed, some of the older residents seem dazed by the intense chaos of colour and squalor that has engulfed their neighbourhood, particularly in the backdrop to almost every image—the concatenation of graffiti, elaborate works of street art, adverts, the common marriage of adverts and street art (for, say, Gucci or Converse), and logos and slogans everywhere—on every wall, on signs, on clothes and on bodies. Wallace acutely brings this writing into his images, using it to comment on the surrounding social scene, and on some of its underlying causes, particularly property speculation and social exclusion. For instance, in an image of a worker lighting a cigarette in a doorway, his lowered head echoes a piece of street art at his side, while a simple graphic on the wall below shows a seesaw, tipped towards ‘Land Value’. And on the other side? ‘Everything Else’. In another, of a much-decorated group of youths chatting, laughing and wielding a film camera (a real sign of social distinction, that) a background graphic reads ‘Irony/Error’, as though a computer had just crashed.

Wallace’s work as a whole documents class stratification, through displays of deportment and bearing, of aspiration, carnival misbehaviour and abjection (Wallace’s sleepers are generally blotto). Class is consciously acted out in a reciprocal routine in which each segment keeps a wary eye on the other, and in which, as Edward Thompson put it in Customs in Common, despite the vast gulf between gentry and plebs, ‘rulers and crowd needed each other, watched each other, performed theatre and countertheatre to each other’s auditorium, moderated each other’s political behaviour.’

Wallace’s highly charged form of social description often has critics reaching for a comparison with Hogarth’s satirical prints. Both have a similar interest in the detail of social display, and in the contrast of classes and customs on London streets. But given Wallace’s heightened colour, the flat illumination of the flash-lit figures that seem cut out from their backgrounds, and the ubiquity of writing, the effect is nearer to the early cartoons of Cruikshank or Rowlandson. Like them, Wallace is on the hunt for some telling distortion of expression, stance or action that can point up one of the myriad forms of depravity. While Hogarth’s viewers are certainly meant to enjoy the detail of the corruption that he so lovingly delineates, at least some of the characters depicted behave well, and are the victims of others’ greed and cruelty: an implicit morality is the penumbral negative that underlies the fate of the immoral. In Cruikshank and Rowlandson, no one escapes the cruel pen, and there are definite affinities between Cruikshank’s annual Monstrosities, his parodies on the fashions of the day, and some of Wallace’s more absurd poseurs who in their hair, dress and bodily décor reflect the street art around them. (If you look hard enough, any critique, no matter how harsh, can be found to contain an ideal, as in Thackeray’s 1840 defence of Cruikshank’s ridicule of the Prince Regent on the grounds that it was to assist ‘the most spotless, pure-mannered darling of a Princess that ever married a heartless debauchee of a Prince Royal.’) While Wallace’s work may initially seem to wallow in the extreme displays of vain and deluded egos, does it also contain a shadowy ideal?

One way to think about this question is to look at the parallels between Wallace and Martin Parr. Both made their names in the magazine and gallery worlds alike with jaundiced portrayals of the working class in seaside resorts, Parr in 1986 with The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton, and Wallace in 2014 with Stags, Hens & Bunnies: A Blackpool Story. Both use garish colour, flash and often work very close up. Both cultivate social cliché, hunting for subjects who conform to tabloid stereotype. In both, too, the search for cliché is in mild tension with the exhibition of assorted eccentrics (though those, too, conform to another stereotype about the British), and the urge for precise social description.

While Parr has since mellowed and has attained the dubious distinction of national treasure, as his entertaining and popular National Portrait Gallery exhibition last year amply proved, his early work was highly controversial. His election to the Magnum agency was the cause of an infamous dispute over the very purpose of documentary photography: should it, as Cartier-Bresson and Philip Jones Griffiths held, be indissociably bound to humanism, and did Parr’s images of an apparently irresponsible, hopeless and slovenly working class violate that bond? Like Parr, too, Wallace went on to focus on the more privileged, and in Harrodsburg (2017) subjected them to unflattering and intrusive close-ups in the quest for a photographic critique. His Middle Eastern super-rich subjects hate the results, and in Doha apparently there are calls for this ‘disgusting’ and ‘perverted’ photographer to be brought before the law. His privileged white subjects, it should be said, are treated with equal contempt.