American Pictures - reviews

How Jacob Holdt's American Pictures works 


The author - from a Northeastern College - wishes to remain anonymous


American Pictures, as stated by its author, Jacob Holdt, "is about whites and a white state of mind in all its present brutality". (1) American Pictures documents this "state of mind", a type of racism, through photographs and text. What Jacob Holdt records is a complex racism, perpetuated by both blacks and whites in American society. In the United States, according to Holdt, whites are locked into their role as masters; while blacks are locked into their role as slaves. Although this master/slave structure was implemented as part of slavery, it still exists today. It is based on the belief that whites are superior to blacks. Because they were treated as inferior, blacks began to believe that they were inferior. The pattern is hard to change because both blacks and whites have internalized the beliefs which structure this system. Thus the master/slave roles continue. To change this system, the entire American society would need to be changed? (2) Though the text formally explains these concepts, the photographs show this. In the following, I will discuss three individual photographs, how each shows "a white state of mind", and how collectively this is revealed. As well, American Pictures will be classified as a. type of document, specifically this will be related to how it functions, and in relation to another document. 

The sense of "a white state of mind in all its present brutality" (3) is conveyed through the photographs; the text provides a context for the photographs, thus limiting the possible interpretations, but also strengthening their message. Aside from Holdt's text, the photograph's composition and its subject make the photograph a powerful document. In "Boy and Girl in Doorway", (the photograph in the upper left corner, page 152), for example, compositional elements and the subjects themselves interact to make us believe the boy and girl are trapped in the slave role. Physically within the photograph they are trapped. This feeling occurs because they are framed within the photograph on three sides: on the right side, diagonally by a door; at the bottom, by a floor; and at the top of the photo, by the horizontal lines of a highway. The viewer believes they can not leave the photograph because they are framed within it, but also because these lines which frame them in connect. 

The first emotional response to these figures is that they are helpless. In addition to being trapped within the photograph, they seem helpless because they are the smallest objects in the photograph, while being in the foreground, as well as the focus of the photograph. In the photograph, many routes of escape are possible, but the boy and girl have no access to these routes. Within the photograph, the door offers escape, it is the largest object in the photograph, but it leads into their house. There is also the highway, which crosses the photograph both horizontally and vertically, but it is suspended above the ghetto on columns. The highway also restricts movement, it fills space and prevents free movement within the ghetto, affecting both the lives of those within the ghetto -- restricting their movement, and preventing life outside -- there is no access. 

In this photograph, the viewer knows the boy and girl have all their body parts, are not physically handicapped, yet none are given in entirety. Parts of arms and legs are given to give the viewer the knowledge that they have these parts, but they are not included in the photograph. Arms and legs are important for movement, though these children have no where to go, without arms and legs they are incapable. Holdt leaves those parts out because it is important that they do not have them, otherwise they would be capable, not the victims the viewer needs to believe. 

In addition to missing body parts, weakness is conveyed through posture and facial expressions. The boy is leaning against the wall. The girl is sitting in a chair. It can be assumed that they do not have the strength to stand up by themselves. In the facial expressions, fear is displayed. The angle of their faces, in relation to the viewer, expresses fear. They do not want to confront the viewer, but look at him from the side, a sign of low self-esteem. 

In this photograph, colors play an important role. There are two color sections in this photograph, firstly, the white and greens, secondly, the browns. The white and green area is the white world which is good and clean. The cement and the grass fall into that category. In the other area, the grass is brown, the beige door in its dirty part is brown, and the figures are brown. The brown objects are discolored and therefore bad and impure. The door is brown in its dirty parts. The grass is brown in its dead parts. And it could be said that the children are discolored because they are not white. The colors thus add another dimension, since they evoke a distinct meaning within this context. 

Holdt persuades the viewer. that this boy and girl are good human beings, despite their condition. They are shown as victims, trapped within their medium -- the ghetto they live in. Holdt conveys these sentiments both by the formal composition and his vantage point in regard to the subjects. Holdt photographed these children on their level, they are neither inferior, nor superior, but equal to the viewer. From Holdt's perspective the viewer needs to be persuaded that the subjects are his equal, so that he will be moved to assist them, by changing the system, which force their condition on them. 

Like the "Boy and Girl in Doorway", the two figures in "Young Girl Being Dressed", (the photograph in the lower left comer of page 141), are trapped within the photograph. The young girl is closed in on all sides: behind her, there is door; on one side there is a mirror; in front of her, there is the woman dressing her; above her, there is a chandelier; below her, there is the counter she is standing on. Similarly, the woman dressing the young girl is trapped. Her torso, what is visible only in the mirror, thus she is confined to that space. There is nowhere for her to go because she is encased in a gold frame on all four sides. 

Besides being physically framed, the woman dressing the young girl is also trapped in her position of servitude. She serves the richer white people. The young girl, the representative of this class, is also trapped. Like in "Boy and Girl in Doorway" physical entrapment represents an emotional state as well. 

The woman dressing the young girl appears to he in control, she is dressing the girl. In reality, the young girl is in control. Within the photograph, the young girl is physically stronger, there are two of her -- the reflection in the mirror and the real one. The young girl's power is also evident in the difference of height, the young girl is taller, which makes her look more powerful. 

The photograph, standing next to the young girl's legs, indicates the girl has power. It is not clear from the photograph what the two figures look like, but it is clear that they have white skin, and can be assumed the parents of the young girl being dressed. Although the photograph of the young girl's parents is small, the parents are the real centers of power. That knowledge is not contained within the photograph, but can be assumed from the structure of society. Like their daughter, they are framed within a photograph, unable to escape. 

Despite the power of the whites, in this case the young girl, she has no feet. The young girl's red shoe is visible in the mirror, while her feet are cut off by its edge. The woman dressing the young girl also has no feet, her legs are cut off below the thigh. This reinforces the idea that both the young girl and the woman are trapped in their roles. It also stresses the fact that both are equally helpless in their positions. Like the "Boy and Girl in Doorway", there is no where to go, and no way to go anywhere. The contrast one would expect between the positions of the ghetto children and a Hispanic servant does not exist. Both the children and the servant are trapped. The children perhaps have more freedom -- they are framed in only on three sides, while the servant is closed in on four sides. 

Contrasting the ghetto children's position with the position of the young girl in this photograph, differences are apparent despite the fact that all three are trapped. The young girl is shown bare chested, but she is not unhealthy, seeing her body in the nude suggests that she has suffered no hardship; there are no scars on her body and she does own clothes, which proves she is not poor (despite the lavish surroundings in the photograph). Thus while Holdt acknowledges that both the master and the slave are locked into their positions, he distinguishes that the master is provided with benefits. 

Despite Holdt's acknowledgement that the young girl has benefits, he does not want us to blame her. She is an engaging individual. This photograph was taken from slightly below the young girl's level, which monumentalizes her. The woman, however, is on our level. This contrast shows that the woman has more to combat, than if the young girl were on her level. To become equal with the young girl, the woman has to do more than the girl. 

On the surface, '"Young Girl Being Dressed" appears to be similar to "Pabst's Granddaughter Being Served", (top left of page 219) these photographs have different points; (4) though both comment on whites big served by blacks and Hispanics. In this photograph, the granddaughter's movement is restricted, on the left side by the table, behind her by a bar and a chair; and on her right aide, by the maid. Within this enclosure, her chair -- its pattern of lines, closes her in still further. These lines react with and against the lines of the girl's sweater and the chair's frame. She is also further closed in by the casing of her head between the top of her chair and the deck's railing. The granddaughter is enclosed around her chair and within her chair, except a space between her legs and the edge of the cocktail table. This suggests that the granddaughter is freer and more controlling than it first appears. 

In this photograph, the granddaughter plays an active role, as compared with "Young Girl Being Dressed". The granddaughter is reaching for something from the platter, which the maid is holding. Unlike all me other children, from previous photographs, she does not lean against anything, she needs no exterior support. 

The illusion in this photograph is that the granddaughter is confined, while the maid is free. The maid is not blocked in. She has all her body parts visible, she has space in which to enter and exit the photograph, but she is the least free. Her position is that of a slave, bending over in subservience. That position is the essence of her servitude. She is allowed to seem free, and should be grateful for her dignity. 

As well as controlling the situation, the granddaughter dominates the space of me photograph. This photograph consists of three areas: the girl and the maid, in front of the figures, and behind the figures. The space in front of the figures, the boards of the deck, particularly, lead the viewer to the figures. The table is also important because it limits the space in which one can enter, it defines the open space by restricting the space. The viewer sees the figures before an idyllic backdrop of trees, most of the area behind the figures is a band of trees behind the figures. The yellow chair, both its shape and its color, draws attention to the figures. All the objects in the photograph single out the figures, especially the granddaughter. 

The girl in this photograph controls both the physical space and the situation. This girl reaches for what she wants, she does not let things happen to her. The granddaughter is self-assured; she is so self-confident that she is oblivious to the photographer . The way the maid looks down at the granddaughter, not daring to gaze away for a moment suggests the girl's power. The granddaughter does not wear an expression of fear on her face, like the two black children, nor does she enchant us as the other white child. It is important to realize that in this photograph, the photographer stood above the level of the girl, and therefore, the viewer is looking down at the girl. Holdt tries to make her smaller and less important. 

Each of the three photographs shows a different aspect of Holdt's theory. To recapitulate, "Boy and Girl in Doorway" shows two young black children trapped in their position as victims. "Young Girl Being Dressed" showed both the young girl and the woman dressing her as victims, although the girl is also the cause of problems. "Pabst's Granddaughter Being Served" shows both the granddaughter and the maid as active participants in their respective roles as master and slave. From these photographs, Holdt hopes to achieve an awareness of the condition in the United States, of blacks, (and other minorities). To achieve this awareness Holdt published the many photographs he took during his travels through the US. 

According to Stott's definition, American Pictures is a social documentary, because it "shows man at grips with conditions neither permanent nor necessary, conditions for a certain time and place." (5) Beyond displaying the conditions of blacks in America, Holdt wants to instigate social reform. 

Superficially, Jacob Riis' book How The Other Half Lives, would seem to have an identical purpose. The main difference between these two books is the presentation of the photographs within each. In American Pictures the photographs are essential, not to prove a point, but because the real "text" lies within the photographs. By contrast, How Thee Other Half Lives uses photographs as illustrations to supplement the text. Riis' text vocalizes the arguments, while in Holdt's the photographs are illustrated by the text. 

The other difference between "American Pictures" and "How The Other Half Lives" is the attitudes of their author/photographers. Holdt respects his subjects as individuals, while Riis despises his subjects as groups. This is significant because Holdt tries to convince viewers by gaining their admiration, to change the system. Riis tries the opposite technique, he uses disgust to instigate social reform. 

Jacob Holdt's "America Pictures" is a social documentary which "defies comment; it imposes meaning." (5) The photographs tell the story, while the text serves to place the photographs in time and space, to make the story real. (6) All Holdt's people are objects formed by "a white state of mind in all its present brutality" (7) Though I agree with most of American Pictures, like all social documentaries it shows one side, but it is necessary to remember that Holdt shows us the negative of a country he has come to love, despite the absence of positive analysis -- because it is not the point of the book, it too can be found in American Pictures. It is the combination of love and acceptance of problems with the object of this love that moves viewers to react after reading this book. 


Davidson, Bruce. "East 100th St." Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1970. 

Frank, Robert. "The Americans." New York, NY: Grove Press Books, 1959. 

Holdt, Jacob. "American Pictures" Copenhagen, Denmark: American Pictures Foundation 

Puckett, John. "Five Photo-Textual Documentaries from the Great Depression." Studies in Photography, Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984. 

Riis, Jacob. "How The Other Half Lives". New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971. 

Stott, William. "Documentary Expression and Thirties America." New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1973. 

Szarkowski, John. "The Photographer's Eye." New York, NY: Museum Of Modern Art, 1966. 

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