American Pictures - reviews

Los Angeles times

Saturday, November 13, 1982

This review is based on only Part One of the original show. Since then it has been vastly improved and updated. 



Times Staff Writer



In Part I of the awe-inspiring "American Pictures," which deals with the South, Danish photographer-film maker Jacob Holdt asserts that slavery thrives, and he backs up that assertion with images and descriptions of terrible poverty and despair among black Americans.

 ("American Pictures" was shown at the last Filmex as a four-hour-plus film. Now it is on tour in its original form as a slide presentation accompanied by a sound track containing Holdt's narration and protest songs. Part I was shown to a rapt, stunned audience last week at the Fox Venice. Both parts will be shown tonight, Sunday and Monday at 7 p.m. and at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Santa Monica Retail Clerk's Hall, 1410 2nd St. They also will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday at Monarch Hall, Valley Community College, Van Nuys. The combined running time of both parts is less than four hours.)

 Holdt spent more than five years photographing America's poor -- and some rich too. Nothing he captures on film should really startle anyone with pretensions to being informed.

 What makes "American Pictures" so disturbingly powerful is the cumulative effects of Holdt's photographs combined with his outsider's analysis of the dynamics of poverty and oppression in the United States. Even so, much of what Holdt says is so shocking as to strain credibility, but then so does what he has to show us; therefore, his words and images tend to validate each other, sweeping us along in the process. 

You believe Holdt -- who says he lived hand-to-mouth during his long odyssey-when he talks of risking his life to infiltrate farm labor communities in Florida and in crossing the color line to ingratiate himself with poor blacks living in shacks no better than those of their slave ancestors. 

What Holdt puts across most effectively is the self-perpetuating nature of poverty, compounded by inadequate nutrition as well as ignorance and racism. Holdt declares that poverty in America is actually crueler than elsewhere because it exists alongside so much affluence -- and that the all-American credo of success only intensifies feelings that the poor, especially the poor white, have only themselves to blame for their plight even though the conditions creating and maintaining it stretch back through the centuries. 

Somehow, Holdt managed to gain the trust of hundreds of impoverished people, mainly blacks, who shared their homes and their feelings with him. Sometime Holdt's determination to trust one and all - and that includes the occasional rich person too - becomes irresponsible. For example, he stays with a pretty young black woman and her child only to provoke a firebombing of her home that costs her young brother hie life. It's all well and good for Holdt to emphasize, as he does, how often his life was endangered, but what of his endangering the lives of others? He doesn't seem to address this question. 

This curious detachment in regard to the consequences of his actions upon others aside, Jacob Holdt has created in "American Pictures" an experience not to be forgotten by anyone who submits to it. Yet Part I is so overpowering that it makes one eager to see Part II, which deals with urban poverty. 


Copyright © 1997 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.

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