New York Times,September 5, 1984
By LAWRENCE VAN GELDER
OUT of 100,000 miles of hitchhiking across the United States, out of 3,000 photographs, out of myriad adventures in a five-year odyssey in the 1970's, a Danish self-styled vagabond named Jacob Holdt has fashioned a visually powerful examination of America's impoverished. Part I of his compilation, titled "American Pictures" and based on a slide show, opens today for a two-week run at the Film Forum.
Blacks, Indians, Chicanos -- many of them living hopeless lives in tumbledown shacks where more than 350 families offered Mr. Holdt their hospitality -- are the focus of his attention. At times these poor are contrasted with the wealthy who also opened their homes and their minds to Mr. Holdt, but for the most part it is the blacks who fill his lens, his thoughts and his emotions.
When his odyssey began, Mr. Holdt was en route from Canada, where he had been working, to South America, which he hoped to visit. But he never made it. His letters home aroused such disbelief that his family sent him a camera, and Mr. Holdt, who was not a photographer, began compiling a record. In the course of his travels, he was held up at gunpoint, he met a former slave said to be 134 years old, he ran guns for the Indians at Wounded Knee; he attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting where a cross was burned; he stayed with a black woman whose home was firebombed, apparently because of her hospitality, and whose brother burned to death in the attack.
The photographic record makes an intense impact. The story of poverty, of the lingering effects of slavery, is told at times in dulled eyes, severed limbs, filthy surroundings. But Mr. Holdt also notes that photographs cannot show hunger, nor can they show winter wind knifing through openings in the shacks where so many blacks still live. So some narration is necessary.
But his pictures are paramount. No one can gaze upon them without agreeing
that such poverty and despair should not be countenanced. It will be some
measure of the tenor of the times to see whether this striking record from
the sometimes-activist 70's stirs more than idle curiosity in the 80's.