Somehow, most people I have talked to that seem to know what’s going in art and photography have never heard of Jacob Holdt. Because Holdt has a book that is a best seller in a few European countries, and really made an impact on a lot of political landscapes in the 70′s and onwards, I feel most would be at least at little familiar with his work. Considering this is not the case, I present the Stiedl version of his influential body of work American Photographs (retitled Jacob Holdt: United States 1970-1975 for the Stiedl edition). The book can be purchased used for as little as $22.50. Video flip through time!
Some background (from the big W):
Passing through the United States in the 1970s with $40 in his pocket, Jacob Holdt was shocked and fascinated by the social differences he encountered. He ended up staying in the USA more than five years, criss-crossing the country by hitchhiking more than 150,000 miles and recording his impressions on film.
© Jacob Holdt
It’s important to understand what exactly Jacob Holdt was trying to achieve with these photos. He took pictures of the world he experienced most frequently in America, in stark contrast with the image set forth by the media and public relations efforts. In particular, the discrepancy of wealth and standards of living between socioeconomic classes. And so he took straight forward, technically-lacking photographs. Simply, he wanted to expose the unseen. In this regard, he had no interest in inflated art photographic discourses and the role of false objective realities plaguing photojournalism. Instead of naively thinking his photographs could make a difference and letting his illusions of grandeur end there, he took his pictures and had them seen by the world. It caused outcry in America, shock in parts of Europe, and an even a brief propagandist siege-opportunity by the KGB. But none of these tainted his vision as a photographer with a mission. Furthermore, he compiled his pictures into a slide show, effectively forming one of the most successful college-circuit lectures on poverty and racism in the 20th century.
Now that I’ve established his intentions and made it clear that apparently I find philanthropic intention directly proportional to artistic merit, let’s discuss the pictures. They are unassuming and raw as all fuck. The subjects retain their authenticity for two reasons. One, power is at the core of his work. He makes it explicitly clear that the unequal distribution of power in this country is a fundamental institution in American life. The subjects in his photographs without political power assume a “power of spirit,” or some sort of loose, abstract idea, that although may not mean anything in the real world, effectively implicate those with political power. Regardless, it works on this level. Two, his portraits are almost always environmental, and smart, despite his haphazard camerawork. As a viewer, you are immediately aware of how deeply personal these spaces are, and thus a respectful readership is inevitable. Granted, undoubtedly, these images will be read by some in a “That’s so horrible, I can’t believe people live like this,” type of way, but his work differs greatly from the self-satisfying photojournalist work in this genre. Contributing to this difference, is the stylistic difference. Using a cheap camera, and being the vernacular instead of temporarily assuming it, lends itself to a successful egalitarian and bohemian identification. If only Ryan McGinley was making pictures like these.
On a level that the readers of this blog might be more interested in, a strange thing happened with the newly published Stiedl version of the work. The book went from being a widely-circulated, non-art world commodity, to a nicely printed, newly edited (dare I saw to satisfy the whims and fancies of the contemporary photography world?), and thus culturally elevated piece of art. Jacob, welcome to the cannon! I have nothing terribly fancy to say beyond stating this fact, but it’s worth considering.
© Jacob Holdt
Mr. Holdt, like most famous and established photographers has a completely ugly website. However, the content makes up for it, including a complete archive of his terribly scanned pictures. Definitely take a look. He’s still working on his photography today, showing his slide show in America, and mounting worldwide campaigns addressing oppression and poverty. Props.