Saturday, October 4, 2008

Jacob Holdt's American Pictures

I thought I would post some of Danish photographer Jacob Holdt's images from his series American Pictures for anyone who hasn't seen them. Traveling across America in the 1970's with $40 in his pocket, Holdt set out to explore the social inequalities of the United States from a self-proclaimed outsider perspective. Often thought of as controversial, the images from American Pictures unflinchingly expose racial, political and class divides, sometimes its argued, at the expense of his subjects. I've always seen Holdt as a more contemporary Jacob Riis (another socially-minded Danish photographer) whose conviction to show life in all its grittiness and inequality is born out of a form of social humanism. Although his images can come across as highly ideological at times, Holdt's work is a valid compendium to the multitude of projects exploring the soft social morals of American culture. Below is a passage from the Steidl published monograph Jacob Holdt: United States 1970-75:

His photographs, however, could use some protection as well. Jacob Holdt's story looks like a, well, difficult case in contemporary art. To summarize briefly: here's this white, Northern European man, free, independent, equipped with all middle-class privileges. Driven by exhilaration and moralistic excitement, he sets out to shoot a couple of thousand pictures of the life and suffering of black America. This constitutes a problem in so many ways right there, because every white observer of the non-white, no matter how generous, high-spirited, long-haired, will always frame things from the point of view of the powerful. The title of honorary black man doesn't exist, no matter how many have applied. And doesn’t Holdt exoticize the black body here? It could almost be read as a fetish, the views of nudity indications of primitivism, and the photographic act as a re-humiliation of those already humiliated by poverty.

There's something else. The American concept of an "underclass" only developed in the 1980s when American Pictures reached the height of its popularity. For sociologist Herbert Gans, the term served to newly stigmatize poverty. It became a frighteningly effective instrument in the "war against the poor," as Gans puts it, a war American society has now been waging for decades, Gans states. Calling the needy the 'underclass' (instead of simply 'poor people') makes it possible to justify their not being normal, their not belonging with 'us'. How does Holdt prevent his work from being enlisted in this campaign, an undertaking directed not so much against poverty, but against the poor? Don't we observe his subjects as if through a laboratory's windowpanes? Sometimes they are naked, sometimes they are hurt, but 'our' kind of privacy they do not possess.

All photographs from the series American Pictures

All Images © Jacob Holdt