American Pictures - reviews

November 6 1981, The Reader, Chicago 

Moving Pictures: 

Jacob Holdt's mirror on America

By Nina Berman and Richard Martin 

Having achieved enormous public and critical acclaim throughout European cities and international film festivals including Cannes, London, and San Francisco,  reached. Chicago. Everyone should see it, everyone who cares about the condition of America and Americans. It is shocking, frequently violent, and often horrifying. American Pictures strikes you and challenges you to strike back. It demands that you act. It is shocking, frequently violent, and often horrifying. American Pictures strikes you and challenges you to strike back. It demands that you act. 

American Pictures expresses a global reality and. a responsibility we all share. It is a slide and tape presentation (it also exists as a book and a film) by Danish photographer Jacob-Holdt, who spent five years penetrating every layer of American society, from black sharecroppers' shacks in the deep south to Rockefeller's mansion, from KKK meetings to parties given by New York liberals at the Museum of Modern Art. He immersed himself in every imaginable situation, and his photos, interviews, and narration show us an America many of us never see. He picked cotton for four dollars a day in Florida, joined the American Indian rebellion at Wounded Knee, got drunk with Ted Kennedy behind the steering wheel, crept through "shooting galleries" in Harlem, and. followed criminals on muggings and armed robberies -- the photos of one startling sequence show armed kids stalking the streets, a holdup, and a shoot-out between cops and young gunmen. In all these seemingly divergent experiences Holdt discovered an America consumed by violence, a violence cultivated during slavery and nurtured by modern-day capitalism. And he was shocked by the disastrous socioeconomic and psychological conditions produced by a contemporary "master-slave relationship" combined with omnipresent hypocritical images of America as the land of opportunity. 

Experientially, Holdt most closely parallels French photographer-film-maker Robert Frank, who toured this country in the 50s, producing the revolutionary documentary images of his classic "The Americans." Spiritually, his production lies somewhere between Studs Terkel's hopeful elegies, Frantz Fanon's psychological analysis of colonialism, and left-wing Marxist criticism. Through it all, however, Holdt remains respectful and sympathetic of his subjects, never patronizing or romanticizing. Artistically his presentation is often imaginative and visually striking. For example, to demonstrate the hopeless absurdity of the American Dream, Holdt contrasts photographs of a middle-aged black man psychologically and physically degenerating on a gutted street with almost surrealistic advertisements offering the material fruits of American society for all, while in the background a Jimmy Cliff song plays on, "You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try, try and try, you'll succeed at last." 

Holdt saves his most intense criticism for northern white liberals. While wealthy, conservative southern whites view blacks as inherently inferior, Holdt says, liberal, educated northern whites see them as functionally inferior. In this sense, Northerners and southerners are equally guilty of racism. Liberals maintain that the causes of the socioeconomic conditions of blacks can be found within the black community and not outside of it. If only blacks could learn how to adapt to their environment, cope with ghetto life, withstand its degradation, they would not have to turn to drugs, prostitution, or crime. In other words, conditions should be accepted, adapted to, and not changed. Ironically, though, as Holdt began to organize American Pictures he received both funds and encouragement from precisely these liberals. Perhaps this is one reason why, throughout American Pictures, Holdt continually questions the validity of his creation. Is he simply another white male from a middle-class background exploiting minorities, putting them under a microscope and dissecting them? Is American Pictures just like so many other black or socially critical art productions paraded at the Museum of Modern Art? Is it, in the end, only passive escapism? These questions are important for any work of art that sets social change as its goal. By raising such issues, Holdt forces the audience not only to examine the presentation but to examine themselves. In this sense, it is an absolute success. 

American Pictures will be shown at 6:30 PM daily through December 19 at the Court Studio Theater, 57th and University. Tickets are $5; information at 768-8581. 


Copyright © 1997 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.

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