American Pictures

Reviewed by Lisa Anne Auerbach

American Pictures is a wild book that’s all shock and awe and freakshow. Self-published by photographer and “vagabond” Jacob Holdt, the book is a fucked-up wacky look at America by a guy who makes a habit of jumping into bed with his subjects and hanging out at cross burnings with the Ku Klux Klan. The dude has love and respect for all people, in a Jesus kind of way, and he wears a beard braided down to his belly button in order to let everyone know that he’s a weirdo too.
I first saw American Pictures as an exhibition at the Herning Museum of Contemporary Art in Herning, Denmark. The museum has the largest collection of Piero Manzoni work in the world, but they didn’t have any on display. Instead, Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures project was there, in some ways not so different from a can of shit.
Many of the images were made between 1971-1975, when Holdt hitch-hiked 100,000 miles throughout the U.S, selling his blood to process film, and staying with his subjects. It’s always embarrassing to be the lone American in the room while everyone is checking out how savage and ugly things are in the U.S. Here is my country: fat white people living in crowded shacks, child rape victims, violently killed animals, swastika tattoos, a toothless prostitute, a freshly killed drifter, and lots of people proudly showing off their gun collections.The Danes are just shaking their heads and trying to relate the photographs to the giant map of the U.S. at the center of the exhibition and I’m trying to keep myself from personally apologizing, on behalf of my country, for all of the vulgarity on display. “It’s not all like this!” I want to yell, at the top of my lungs, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it is all like this, and I’m the one that’s living with blinders on.
The chasm between Denmark and the rural American South is one that obsessed Holdt, and he was fascinated by African-Americans, rednecks, whores, murderers, and extreme poverty. Holdt follows in the footsteps of Jacob Riis, another great Dane who depicted the American ghetto. Riis’ nighttime images of urban squalor brought attention to the living conditions of the poor. Holdt unabashedly compares himself to Riis, posting both of their astrological charts on his website side by side. To the astrologically-ignorant eye, they appear to be quite different, and I’m not sure if Holdt is making a point or a joke.
When Holdt writes generally about the state of the United States, his sincerity concerning racism and social imbalance is nauseating to the eyes of this cynical reader, but the stories he tells about his subjects, along with the photographs, are viscerally emotional and incredibly compelling. A matter-of-fact narrative about Woody, a hitchhiker he picked up, begins, “During our long drive that night, he told me that he and his two brothers had killed so many black people that they couldn’t count them on their fingers and toes.” The accompanying photograph of Woody shows a scrappy young blond man, with missing front teeth, a scraggly beard, a red trucker hat, and a Spuds McKenzie Bud Light t-shirt. He stares at the camera holding a styrofoam cup of coffee. Despite his outfit, he looks nothing like a hipster, and, although I’ve been art-school damaged to reject any notion that a photograph might have something to do with reality, when I look at this guys eyes in the picture, it’s scary.
Holdt’s ego is annoying and his know-it-allness comes through in the text. He’s the son of a preacher and maybe that has something to do with the preachiness of the whole project. But the photographs are intense and awful and hard to stop looking at.

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Jacob Holdt, American Pictures, (American Pictures, 1997)
Images: Cover and photo from American Pictures by Jacob Holdt