where have all the flowers gone?
Flowers are non-existent in the world of Jacob Holdt’s
pictures. At least, there is a conspicuous lack of floral subjects
in the artist’s photographic production, which spans half a century
and numbers thousands of images. American Pictures – A Personal
Journey Through the American Underclass, his breakthrough narrative,
came out as a book and multimedia show in the 1970s. The hippie age
and the flower-power movement apparently left no visible traces in
the America Holdt encountered a few short years after Woodstock, or
did Holdt consciously leave out a whole generation’s image of
A person’s self-image is not necessarily the same as an entire.
Holdt looks like a tall, skinny hippie with his shaggy hair and
long, braided pigtail beard. But his pictures are of another world.
The question is, whose? Are they pictures of black America? A
nation’s self-image – who paints that? The media, individuals?
America is a big country with much diversity among its citizens. At
the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., which opened
in 2003 and represents the story of the indigenous peoples, a Native
American speaker on a video screen says, “When you listen, trust
only your heart.” For who is telling the story? The story of the
American Indian has been handed down by oral tradition, but the
media image is the white man’s – from the early photographs of a
proud prairie people living in harmony with nature to more warlike
and alcoholic representations in Hollywood westerns. Holdt is a
white man dedicated to relating his sometimes painful journey
through black America. Can we trust what we see? Can we have
confidence in his fascinating low-budget photographs made from equal
parts human- rights engagement, sense of justice and Biblical drive
for brotherly love? It’s up to the viewer to judge. Holdt’s pictures
judge no one. They lay things bare. They are open, blurry, wild,
beautiful, mute, grim, dark, colored, vulnerable, vulgar and, above
all, handheld – Dogma 95 photographs from a life that dares to go up
against the lives of others without losing focus or integrity. Holdt
takes pictures with his heart. He is a master of neutral
observation, an esthete of spiritual life, a genuinely present
person, an artist without filters. And his pictures leave the rest –
the interpreting – to us, the viewers.
Flowers are non-existent in Holdt’s pictures. Well, not entirely.
Coffin sprays and bouquets are seen at a child’s funeral, with the
recently deceased. Flowers of sorrow. Flowers are included at a few
other ceremonial events, too. Either way, wedding or funeral, the
flowers are depressing. They hold no messages of joy or hope. They
are like broken little lilies in a beer mug on a bar top. Green is
both good for the eyes and the color of hope. Nonetheless, Holdt’s
world seems to steer clear of vivid hues in favor of browns, grays,
muddy yellows and dusty blues. His photos have the colors and the
aura of instamatic vacation shots. Even big-city graffiti on raw
walls in eye-popping colors seems to be experienced through the
sedated eye of a plastic lens. The blurriness, of course, is due to
his camera’s quality, or lack thereof. Still, the everyman sense of
his shots lends the project its true potential. Holdt has said that
he is “good at getting into homes no one else could get into, but
where anyone could have taken a good picture.” One might add that
anyone plunging into this kind of intuitive documentarism probably
wouldn’t survive very long. The America this ‘vagabond’ ventures
into has a lot of firearms. Holdt is unique in his field. His work
is not made for the art institution or out of any political
conviction. That Holdt’s work has been interesting to both sides of
the aisle over the years is not really so strange. He has been on
the road for a long time. If you’re looking for beauty, it’s there.
If you’re looking for messages, the opportunities for that are
likewise unlimited. Parallels can be drawn between Holdt’s tireless
work as a visual storyteller and the opportunities America sees
after electing Barack Obama in a landslide as its first black
president. The story of America is a keystone of society. Identity
is myth. And the myth is alive in every American.
Moreover, parallels can be drawn between the universality of the
photography in the artistic practice of Jacob Holdt and, for
instance, Andy Warhol and Nobuyoshi Araki. In these three artists,
presence and unfolding life is contained in the medium’s stream of
images. Warhol photographed celebrities. Like American Pictures,
Warhol’s 1985 book AMERICA is a collection of originals,
one-of-a-kind human specimens, celebrities or people in the artist’s
surroundings, depicted with apparent neutrality on a par with other
items from mass-culture’s array of junk, foods and odd designs. The
Statue of Liberty seems to be the unifying principle behind
everything between heaven and earth – everything American, that is.
A flower is a flower, but Mick Jagger is a flower, too – or a
commodity, if you like. The Japanese artist Nobuyoshi Araki has a
similar appetite for photography as a common denominator of the
great, big all or nothing of the world around us. Araki’s
photographs look staged, but make no mistake: He lives out his
staging among prostitutes, orchids, cats, snails and plastic
dinosaurs on a gaudy backdrop of landscapes, signage and primordial
or artificial nature. Like Holdt, Araki takes the whole world in
through his lens in a 8 chaotic, unstructured pile of snapshots
that, appallingly enough, end up being excellent photographs every
single one – meaningful, at any rate, and most often extremely
beautiful. The German painter Gerhard Richter – whose book Atlas
also tracks photography’s gray flow – has said, echoing Karl
Valentin: “Art is great, but it takes a lot of work. So, it doesn’t
matter whether we paint heaven or earth – the main thing is that
they are well painted.”
Warhol, Araki and Holdt use their cameras both in heaven and hell –
as long as they are observable – on earth. Big series of decorative,
opulent flowers are found in Warhol. In Holdt, practically none. For
its part, Holdt’s imagery includes a lot of trash. Not the appealing
packaging of a soup can, as in Warhol, or neatly arranged,
controlled nature in the form of a hogtied woman, as in Araki. As
seen through Western eyes, bonsai, ikebana and bondage are
expressions of an outré and decadent packaging culture, after all.
Surfaces are what we observe. Holdt’s focus is European,
conscientious, moral, interior. He doesn’t simply photograph the
latest thing the world around him has to offer but includes the
residue, all the crap littering the streets. All those things that
have been opened and used. From human lives to food to car wrecks.
Pictures of filthy rooms and filthy people who, however
involuntarily, have ended up in the gutter. Photographs of great
beauty and value. Heaven and hell are well photographed. Holdt has
goodness in his heart, but his practice can seem neutral, to some
even emotionally cold. “How could he even think of taking such a
humiliating picture?” A characteristic of great artists precisely is
that they express themselves very little. They stick to the subject,
the work, the world outside themselves, which the viewer can be a
part of without having any particular opinion stuffed down his
throat. Holdt’s photography evokes feelings, empathy, sorrow and
joy, but in their starting points they are all fairly neutral.
The philosopher Roland Barthes once remarked, on a photo of a
traditional French village house: “I want to live there….”. The
ordinary, the overlooked, often these are the things that awake our
deepest longing for life change. Looking at Holdt’s photos from
Harlem tenements or derelict Southern cotton pickers’ shacks doesn’t
stress us out. On the contrary, we are included in the bell jar of
apathy that encloses the pictures. Then, so what? What’s the use?
Can I make a difference? We know we exist in the same world as the
people depicted and their bleak surroundings, even if the photograph
represents another world. President Obama has written about the
political tradition that “it binds us together, it’s bigger than the
things that drive us apart.” Looking at Holdt’s pictures, we don’t
just see the differences and inequality in the world, we see the
basic conditions on which we all exist. The planet’s at-risk people
exist. And photography reminds us that they are common property,
like global warming, democracy and Nazism are. The world’s problems
may seem insurmountable. But an individual has no trouble sensing
the meaningful community inherent in a better world. Very few people
would say, “I want to live there,” when they look at the peeling
wallpaper, the paper-thin walls in poorly heated corrugated- iron
shacks and the moldy coffee dregs in Holdt’s photographs. But we can
be sure that the people in the pictures live right there, that they
even pay to do so.
These American pictures by a Lutheran minister’s son are both
physically and mentally demanding constructions. They are pleas for
hope to individual human beings. If God exists, He is for everyone.
Holdt’s subject is simple and direct: our planet’s at-risk people –
from every stratum of society, that is. In that respect, he stands
shoulder to shoulder with other great artists of that tradition,
from Goya to Richter, from Picasso to Palle Nielsen, the Danish
artist whose work has fixed suffering for use by eternity’s eyes.
Holdt philosophizes with his camera as his tool, without judging
at-risk people. Compassion and empathy are his oeuvre’s watermark.
Holdt decodes reality’s depths without abandoning his artistic
integrity and esthetic freedom. It’s a tough balance to strike. It
takes guts and independence. Maybe that’s his lot in life, and the
ticket to his matchless, timeless pictures. Taking pictures is just
something he does.
“Can you make that happen?” is a typically direct Holdt question. He
only small talks a few minutes at a time, then he’s back on the
track of his life’s work. In Holdt’s use of language, there are
millionaires and poor people. The distinction is sharply drawn and
the chasm between the “classes” deep. But everyone, without
prejudice, is described as a friend, almost as on Facebook. Holdt
communicates his life’s work and his life’s work is communication.
Photography is at the hub. Without it, there would be no narrative.
Or, without it there would be no art. The esthetics, thus, drive the
politics. Holdt’s fight isn’t between minorities and the majority or
between blacks and whites, rich and poor. He chooses the side that
chooses him. I guess that would be a vagabond photographer’s mantra.
Perhaps that’s why there are no flowers in his pictures. He didn’t
leave them out. But he chose not to immortalize them:
Not I – not anyone
else, can travel that road for you / You must travel it for
Steffensen (b. 1961) Has functioned as a consultant on the
exhibition Faith, Hope & Love – Jacob Holdt’s America. Steffensen
works artistically as a visual artist, curator and author. He
trained as a visual artist at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts
in 1986-92 and his works are represented at among other places
Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland and the Louisiana Museum of
Modern Art. Steffensen was a professor at the Royal Danish Academy
of Fine Arts in 1998-2007. Today he is chairman of the board of the
Danish Arts Foundation from 2008-2010.
Dyer (b. 1958) Is the author of many books including But Beautiful
(winner of the Somerset Maugham prize), The Ongoing Moment (winner
of an ICP Infinity Award for writing on photography) and, most
recently, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a novel.
Copyright © 2014