From the catalogue of Museum of Modern Arts Louisiana:
"Faith, hope and love" by Jacob Holdt


Erik Steffensen

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 itself?

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 yourself.
Walt Whitman



Erik 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.



Geoff 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.


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