Sitting forlornly amidst the rubble of his room, Holdt's subject seems the epitome of despair. The television set, whether working or not, is behind him, with a vase of flowers, real or artificial, on top. Virtually every photograph in Holdt's American Pictures is of human subjects, most of them impoverished and broken. But there are others where Holdt shows us the determination and vitality of the ghetto; and still others where we see the social context surrounding it - the middle class, the upper class, the extremists of the Ku Klux Klan, and so on.
America seen from the outside
The distance between the dream and the reality is even greater, far
greater, in the documentary project of Jacob Holdt,
There is no harsher or bleaker picture of America than that
produced by Holdt, who hitchhiked around the country in the early
living largely off the generosity and bounty of strangers, while he
documented conditions of poverty that are among the most shocking
and disturbing images ever made about American life. Holdt's view like
that of Robert Frank before him-is that of an outsider; moreover,
like Jacob Riis, Holdt is Danish and not unaware of the parallels
between himself and his fellow countryman and photographic predecessor.
But where Riis assimilated into American society, adopting the
perspective of a reformer from within
the culture, Holdt remained adamantly an outsider, looking with
perpetual astonishment at the savagery of racism in the United
The layout of American Pictures is not designed to feature individual photographs, nor to show them as `art'; in fact, Holdt's style can best be described as unsubtle, at times brutishly naive. Even so, the intent is to elide aesthetic issues, to make the content, the literal reality of the images, speak to the viewer in language that is unembellished. American Pictures is one of the most powerful indictments of racism, but it is also a work that refuses to take a scolding tone, as Holdt discovers in himself the grounds of white racism, implicating the reader as well, white or black, in the complex violence of our racist society. Holdt focuses primarily on the lives of his subjects. Yet another strong statement by a foreign photographer, The New American Ghetto by Camilo Jose Vergara'33 focuses on the environment of poverty, the urban ghetto, and its transformations over the last twenty years of the twentieth century. Berenice Abbott had, in the 1920s and 1930s, observed the rapid changes in the material fabric of the American city and had sought to record the moment before it passed unrecorded. Vergara's point is different: to show the change itself, from `before' to `after', creating in effect a kind of time-lapse photography that reveals the way whole areas in our cities have decayed into ruins, or have been flattened and cleared, or else-on occasion, however infrequent-been successfully rebuilt.
Copyright © 2002 Jacob Holdt
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