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


Geoff Dyer



Artists are part of a tradition even if they are oblivious to it – even if they do not consider themselves artists and are actively hostile to being regarded as such. Photography is a particularly broad and welcoming church in this respect. You don’t disqualify yourself by claiming to be interested in the medium only as a lobbying tool, as part of a larger agenda of social activism. By making this plea for exemption, you’re actually enlisting in a regiment with a particularly distinguished and proud photographic history. Commit yourself to the wider, non-ideological role of bearing witness and providing visual testimony, and you move still closer to the mainstream of that history. But what if you’re a self-proclaimed vagabond, if you not only refuse to consider yourself an artist, but are adamant that you are ‘not a photographer’ either1? Then step inside, please, you will meet many kindred spirits and fellow refuseniks with whom you have much in common.

In 1975, in a bookstore in San Francisco, Jacob Holdt chanced upon – and stole – a copy of How The Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. Holdt was otherwise unaware of – or, at the very least, indifferent to – the fact that he might be treading in the footsteps of earlier photographers, but for anyone with basic photo-forensic skills their prints are easy to find and follow. Temperamentally and technically, Holdt may have nothing in common with Robert Frank but – whether he cares about it or not – both are part of that mini-tradition of Europeans crossing the Atlantic and, to borrow the title of Richard Poirier’s book of essays, “trying it out in America2.”

Part of the fascination of what Holdt found and photographed in America lies in its unconscious relation to work that has gone before or that was being made at roughly the same time. A tacit dialogue insists on being – if there is a visual equivalent of overheard – overseen. The black-and-white sign above the gas pumps in Frank’s The Americans urged us to S A V E; the one snapped by Holdt urges us, red-and-yellowly, to S ELL.

Holdt did not share Frank’s devotion or debt to Walker Evans but elements of the America catalogued by Evans form an unavoidable backdrop to Holdt’s project. In terms of what they sought to accomplish and how they wished their work to be viewed the two men could not have been more different. Evans wanted his photographs to be seen without any ideological filtering. ‘NO POLITICS whatever’3, he insisted, though of course this disavowal of political intent did not mean there was no political content. There may have been something a bit disingenuous about Evans’s claim (he was even more vehemently opposed to the “screaming aesthete” Stieglitz) but the description of how he ‘kept his white gloves on’ while photographing slums has the ring of critical as well as anecdotal truth4.

However starkly and unsentimentally Evans recorded the poor sharecroppers of Alabama, his pictures have, over time, acquired a stone-washed glamour of their own. Free of the vulgar trappings of modern poverty, those 1930s shacks now look quaint and clean. Like some high-intensity detergent, black-and-white smartens a place up, gets rid of dirt in a gradual flash. Concerned that his pictures might be doing something similar, Holdt was adamant that his experience of the shacks of the rural African- American poor “was far, far worse than they appear in photographs. In such pictures you can’t see the wind which whistles through the many cracks making it impossible to keep warm in winter. You can’t see the sagging rotten floors with cracks wide enough for snakes and various vermin to crawl right into the living room5.”

This may be true, but few photographers have made the day-to-day poverty of an affluent society – plenty of TVs; a huge fridge, filthy, and crammed with nothing that looks safe to eat – look more impoverished. So much so that his photographs of people and their homes look like they were made not in the 1970s but seventy years ago, as if they were a recently exhumed part of the stash of colour pictures taken under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration, FSA – minus the bright, uplifting imperatives encouraged by the organisation’s director, Roy Stryker, who planed the photographic documentation of the countryside of America. Like many petitioning photographs, Holdt’s depend on an initial reluctance to accept what they show, to reject what they seek to prove: surely people could not be living like that in the 1970s, in America. By then, by the 1970s, Evans’s pictures had acquired a texture and glow that brought about a retrospective improvement to the lives he had recorded. Roughly the same amount of time has already passed since Holdt made many of his best-known pictures and it seems unlikely that they will ever undergo a similar kind of upgrade. It looks like it might be quite nice to sit on the stoop of one of Evans’s shacks and suck down a cold one with Floyd Burroughs, but you’d never want to sit on one of the sofas in Holdt’s places, let alone sleep in one of the beds. But that’s being too solemn and snooty. Put it this way: If Holdt was showing us these images as holiday snaps (which, in a sense, they are) we’d have to say, “Man, you stayed in some shit holes!”

There is a qualitative technical difference too between Holdt and Evans. Made by a man assured of his vocation, Evans’s work aimed at deep permanence. His prints are luminously beautiful. Shot with cheap film, Holdt’s photographs were notes made in passing, ‘a kind of diary’ or visual journal of a man who abjured all sense of vocation and purpose other than hitching a ride or finding a place to sleep. There’s minimal disjuncture between what he was photographing and the means with which he recorded it.

As with homes and furnishing, so with people. FSA-style photography, especially in the magisterial images by Dorothea Lange, meant that even when stripped of everything else the Okies retained their dignity. So much so that the Depression became a form of visual attrition, stripping people down to their essential dignity. There are occasional traces of this in Holdt’s work. The woman that he finds in Florida – haven’t we seen that deeply lined, dried-out, life-ravaged face before? We have, of course; it is the stoically defiant face of the Great Depression, but whereas Lange’s Migrant Mother cradled her children, this woman nurses a cigarette over cans of Budweiser in a bar; and it’s not her helpless children, it’s a husband or boyfriend who is sidling drunkenly up to her. His neck might be red but the face of the guy Holdt meets in a bar in Mississippi has the battered charisma of a Johnny Cash song – and his shirt’s nice too. Around the younger women photographed by Holdt there sometimes lingers the possibility, not just of a place to stay but the dangerous allure of cross-racial romance.

The deprivation witnessed by Holdt often robbed people of everything, including their dignity – with the coming of junk food, poverty tended to bloat, physically, rather than erode – but this is balanced by the way his pictures lack the single-minded pride that Evans, Lange and others took in their medium and in their own status within the pantheon of its greatest practi-tioners. The disconnect between what is recorded and the way in which it is recorded is at its starkest and most blatant in Richard Avedon’s photograph, William Caseby, Born a Slave, 1963. It’s a great picture, an unflinching depiction not just of a man’s face but of the very thing that obsessed Holdt: the psychological and historical residue of slavery, of internalised powerlessness. Unlike Caseby, the picture of him is absolutely confident of its power, of its selfevident right to rub shoulders with works by any of the masters of portraiture from the entire history of art. While Avedon called the shots, as it were, Holdt addressed his subjects – like Charles Smith, a former slave – more modestly, on their own terms and in their own homes. As vagabond and photographer he depends upon and graciously accepts people’s hospitality. That’s the advantage of the vagabond-artist method: Everyone – black, white, rich, poor, racists, junkies, hookers, pimps, Klansmen, gun nuts, rednecks – extend their kindness and trust to Holdt and, as a result, are seen at their best, at their most American.

Unobtrusively, almost incidentally impressive, Holdt’s photographs have – as we have seen – ended up in a museum in spite of their maker’s declared intentions. It was only recently, after a quarter-century wait, that they took their place alongside the work of his contemporaries and successors. As soon as they did, certain resemblances were so striking, the feeling of kinship so strong, that it was as if a prodigal had finally agreed to show up for a long-postponed get-together. The 87-year-old woman Holdt drove all the way from Alabama to Arizona, the one brandishing the gun in the doorway of her shack, meets up with the old guy sitting on a bed with his gun (photographed by William Eggleston) in Morton, Mississippi. Actually, once you make adjustments for some variation in palette, there is evidence of a whole generation of interbreeding between Holdt and Eggleston, especially if we bear in mind the latter’s declared intention to photograph ‘democratically’.

‘Eggleston’ has become a kind of shorthand or metonym for colour photography generally and, in Holdt, there are glimpses of the kind of stuff that fascinated another renegade colourist, Stephen Shore in American Surfaces. What Luc Sante said of Nan Goldin – that she was able to ‘take the most squalid corner of the worst dump and find colours and textures in it no one else saw’ – almost holds true for Holdt6. Whereas she finds ‘oceanic’ blues and ‘crepuscular’ oranges, Holdt sees the same, unexceptional colours as the rest of us but – like Helen Levitt in her colour work – coaxes an understated harmony from the muted maroons, pale greens and (in one of his best pictures, of a girl on a bed, watching telly) dullish purples, grey-mauves. What he shares with Goldin is an absolute lack of distance or inhibition between photographer and subjects. In Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (which, like Holdt’s American Pictures, enjoyed it’s first incarnation as a slide show) we get an hermetic account of a community with a fairly fixed cast of characters within a city at a particular historical moment. The same is true of the grey rush of Larry Clark’s Tulsa (1971). With Goldin it’s transgressives, bohemians, and druggies on the Lower East Side; with Clark it’s teenage speed freaks shooting up in Oklahoma. Holdt’s project is inherently less circumscribed. His readiness to go along with whatever happens and to get along with whoever he happens to run into makes for a sprawling odyssey of serial intimacies and random proximity. Along the way he occasionally gets to watch a bit of TV (there are a lot of them about) or to watch people watching it (or, on one occasion, to watch them stealing it). In the image of Baggie feeding her baby while Nixon is beamed into the room, the political irony is implied silently. In others there is the sense, observed by Lee Friedlander (in photographs) and later verbally corroborated by Jean Baudrillard, that a television might be broadcasting from ‘another planet’ or showing ‘a video of another world’7. In this world, meanwhile, Holdt accidentally witnesses the scenes of violent death sought out by the Mexican Enrique Metinides, another photographer only recently promoted to gallery status.

That Holdt’s pictures did not go knocking on the doors of museums, as it were, did not plead for institutional recognition or art-critical approval is a prime reason why they deserve admission. As more and more people use cameras as a way of gaining acclaim not as photographers but as artists, so the status of this surrogate medium is in danger of becoming somewhat overblown. Literally. The question one asks repeatedly in gallery shows of 6 x 10 prints (feet, I mean, not inches!) is: Does this work earn its size? Would this photograph be able to make the grade as a work of art if it had not been pumped up with the growth hormones of the artist’s huge aspirations and ambitions? The paradox is that some of the most artistically valuable contemporary photographs are content with being photographs, are not under the same compulsion to pass themselves off – or pimp themselves out – as art. The simple truth is that the best exponents of the art of contemporary photography continue to produce work that fits broadly within the tradition of what Evans termed ‘documentary style’8.

Holdt’s movement from the photographic fringes to the walls of a museum – and the corresponding shift of emphasis in any assessment of his career, from activist to photographer – is not just deserved, it is historically inevitable. Records of moments in time, these photographs have outlived their time in a way that the words surrounding them in the book, American Pictures, have not. Perhaps this conforms to a more general truth about the relative longevity of words and images when paired together in this way, for the same thing happened to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) by Evans and James Agee. Gore Vidal wittily scorned the ‘good-hearted, soft-headed admirers of the Saint James (Agee) version of poverty in America’8 which, over time, has come to seem at odds with the enduring value of Evans’s ‘austere’ photography. Holdt’s engaging naiveté saves him from the kind of Scandinavian omniscience that becomes wearisome in Sven Lindqvist’s later, polemical writing, but the text of American Pictures would not be reprintable today except as a historical document or exhibit, like one of those mammals found preserved in a glacier. The enduring vitality of the photographs, on the other hand, is evident in two, apparently contradictory, ways.

First, they wouldn’t look out of place in Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), a firsthand testament to the problems of addiction, poverty and deprivation that pre-dates Holdt’s arrival in America. Second, they could readily be inserted into more recent accounts of the drug-ravaged American ghetto, such as Richard Price’s novel Clockers (1992) or David Simon’s and Ed Burns’s masterpiece of ‘stand-around-and-watch’ reportage, The Corner (1997)9. Holdt photographed Ronald Reagan in 1972, ‘long before he became president’10; Simon and Burns quote him years later, saying that “we fought a war against poverty and poverty won”, a line that could serve as a caption for any number of pictures in this exhibition11. The so-called war on drugs, the authors insistently remind us, actually became a war against the poor. Holdt, in this sense, was a combat photographer, embedded in the frontline. His experience renders him more, not less sympathetic to those caught up – or actively engaged – in the conflict, visually affirming Simon’s and Burns’s claim that “if faith and spirituality and mysticism are the hallmarks of any great church, then addiction is close to qualifying as a religion for the American underclass12.” The issue, as always, is one of precision and detail which the pictures provide in deliberate and accidental abundance. (Strangely, the hair-styles and clothes date the pictures in the sense of identifying them with a period – Jacob Holdt was working at the same time as Garry Winogrand, obviously without confining their relevance to that time.) There is a good deal of rhetoric in Holdt’s writing, almost none in the pictures. This is partly because some of the pictures are not about anything; certain moments or events just happened to catch his eye. And partly it is because some are about so much more than what they are ostensibly about.

For a photographer whose interest is primarily documentary or polemical, Holdt’s work is surprisingly rich, psychologically. The people in his pictures are never just representatives of the fallen condition in which they find themselves. The stories implied by the photographs are often more subtly individualized than the ones set out by the text of American Pictures. As with Eggleston – again – a tacit narrative seems poised to unfold within each frame. Some are tense with expectation, like a Jeff Wall tableaux, almost, frozen in the act of time. But even off-the-cuff ones condense an unexpected amount of time into the split second of the photograph’s creation.

Take the picture of the woman in the green halter-neck dress, eating a lobster and smoking a cigarette at a lavish dinner in Palm Beach. The photograph is neither caustic nor judgemental – how could it be when the man seated between the woman in green and the fellow in the related green blazer, is wearing one of the funniest jackets ever seen? – but its overt message or social meaning has to do with the gluttony or vulgarity of someone eating and smoking at the same time (weirdly, the one thing she does not seem to be doing is breathing). The fact that these two activities – eating and smoking – normally occur successively rather than simultaneously suggests that the exposure has taken twenty minutes (i.e. the time it would take to tuck into the lobster and then smoke a cigarette) while the guy swigging momentarily from his champagne shows the real speed of time. Perhaps that’s why there is a sense that she has slid out of the shared time of the table and into some kind of private trance (technically a result of Holdt’s flash?) as if she might actually be one of the undead, the unbreathing, or an alien in human form, some kind of Stepford Wife who found that those two lines of coke before dinner had really put the kibosh on her appetite. When Deckard subjects Rachel to the Voight-Kampff test in Blade Runner it takes far longer than usual to establish that she is actually a Replicant – because she is under the illusion that she is a human being. Holdt here photographs, or suggests, someone during a moment when she gets an inkling that all the things that make her life humanly meaningful might actually be illusory, false. Or maybe we’re being too solemn again: Could be she’s really feeling that coke, so intent on appearing to listen to whatever the (unseen) guy across the table is blahing on about that she’s not heard a goddamn word, even though it seems like he’s been talking at her since the dawn of time and no punch line is yet in evidence. Either way, the condensation of time in the image means that this moment lasts for both a 100th of a second (shutter and flash, sip of champagne), twenty minutes (eating and smoking) and, extrapolating from there, a lifetime.

1 J.H., quoted in Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2008, edited by Stefanie Braun, The Photographers Gallery, London, 2008, p. 72.

2 Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1999.

3 Quoted in Walker Evans at Work, London, Thames and Hudson, London, 1984, p. 112.

4 Quoted in Belinda Rathbone: Walker Evans: A Biography, Thames and Hudson, London 1995, p. 114.

5 American Pictures, American Pictures Foundation, Copenhagen, 1985, p. 64.

6 “All Yesterday’s Parties”, in Nan Goldin, I’ll Be your Mirrror, Whitney Museum of Art/Scalo, New York, 1996, p. 101.

7 America, Verso, London, 1988, p. 50.

8 quoted in The Camera Viewed: Writings on Twentieth Century Photography, Volume 1, edited by Peninah R. Petruck, , Dutton, New York, 1979, p. 127.

9 Quoted in United States: Essays 1952-1992, André Deutsch, London, 1993, p. 632.

10 new edition, Canongate, Edinburgh, 2009, p. 611.

11 United States 1970-1975 Steidl, Göttingen, 2007, p. 187.

12 The Corner, p. 99.

13 The Corner, p. 81.


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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