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America seen from
the outside


by Miles Orwell

in "Oxford History of Art:
American Photography"


The distance between the dream and the reality is even greater, far greater, in the documentary project of Jacob Holdt, American Pictures (1992). There is no harsher or bleaker picture of America than that produced by Holdt, who hitchhiked around the country in the early 1970's, living largely off the generosity and bounty of strangers, while he documented conditions of poverty that are among the most shocking and disturbing images ever made about American life. Holdt's view like that of Robert Frank before him-is that of an outsider; moreover, like Jacob Riis, Holdt is Danish and not unaware of the parallels between himself and his fellow countryman and photographic predecessor. But where Riis assimilated into American society, adopting the perspective of a reformer from within the culture, Holdt remained adamantly an outsider, looking with perpetual astonishment at the savagery of racism in the United States.

 

Some of Holdt's early pictures were published by the Black Panthers, but on his return to Denmark, Holdt displayed them as part of a slide show in his father's church. (His father, like Riis's, was a minister.) And Holdt would continue to present his work in that format, providing a narration to accompany the images (as Riis did, in fact), eventually expanding his presentation to recordings, music, automated slide projection-a well-traveled show on college campuses in the US throughout the 1990's. Holdt's personal presence is oddly understated, yet at the same time charismatic, carrying the audience into his world through the force of his perceptions and the honesty of his declarations about himself. That honesty is at the centre of the printed volume, American Pictures, published first in Denmark in the late 1970's, and expanded into an English language version in the 1990's. Holdt narrates his own travels through the quite contrasting social worlds of the US for he is adopted not only by the poor, but also, on occasion by the middle class and wealthy, and not infrequently by women who are charmed by this foreigner. (At one point he is briefly engaged to a Rockefeller; but he escapes gratefully back into the ghettos.) Holdt's descriptions of the brutality of America's racist society are detailed and vivid, and they provide the context for the pictures, which show the Native American and, chiefly, the African American underclass of the US as tired, defeated, sick, injured; but also loving, determined, playful, politically engaged. It is not a simple portrait, and it gains strength from its complexity and contradictions, and above all because of the cumulative effect of the hundreds of pictures Holdt presents. The layout of American Pictures is not designed to feature individual photographs, nor to show them as `art'; in fact, Holdt's style can best be described as unsubtle, at times brutishly naive. Even so, the intent is to elide aesthetic issues, to make the content, the literal reality of the images, speak to the viewer in language that is unembellished. American Pictures is one of the most powerful indictments of racism, but it is also a work that refuses to take a scolding tone, as Holdt discovers in himself the grounds of white racism, implicating the reader as well, white or black, in the complex violence of our racist society. Holdt focuses primarily on the lives of his subjects.
 


 


Sitting forlornly amidst the rubble of his room, Holdt's subject seems the epitome of despair. The television set, whether working or not, is behind him, with a vase of flowers, real or artificial, on top. Virtually every photograph in Holdt's American Pictures is of human subjects, most of them impoverished and broken. But there are others where Holdt shows us the determination and vitality of the ghetto; and still others where we see the social context surrounding it - the middle class, the upper class, the extremists of the Ku Klux Klan, and so on.

American Pictures - reviews