Jacob Holdt: American Pictures 1970-1975

Above, two of the images from photographer Jacob Holdt currently on display at CNA gallery in Luxembourg.

[Holdt] was 24 years old when he decided in 1971, like many of his Danish compatriots, to travel across the American continent. He landed in Canada with the aim of rapidly crossing through the United States to get to the true destination of his travels: South America. But from the moment he crossed the Canadian border, Jacob Holdt was struck by an America characterised by poverty and the exclusion of the socially disadvantaged. In his outrage, he described the misery he was witnessing in letters to his parents who, for their part, remained incredulous. His father nevertheless sent him a small camera so that he could back up his accounts with tangible proof. And this is how the long voyage of the young Dane through the United States started, not to be completed until five years and several thousand snapshots later, with a deeply moving work: 'American Pictures 1970-1975', published as a book in 1978.

Jacob Holdt, who was nominated for this year's DeutscheBorse Photography Prize, has remained a key figure in Danish activist circles, despite having in the meantime more or less given up photography. His images of the America of the destitute of the seventies had great repercussions and to a large extent inspired the movies Dogville and Manderlay by Lars van Trier."

Link (thanks, Clayton James Cubitt!)


  1. I’m sure this guy is a great artist, with a keen eye for capturing the underbelly of society, but his captions still read like satire.

    For instance:
    “Boss ordering black to work with cut off fingers”
    “Mink fur for the rich – death to the poor”
    “Children learning white supremacy like their fathers”
    “Black crucified in front of Congress”
    “Ghetto children under freeways for white suburbia”

    Seriously? Sure the far far left will eat this up, but I’ve lived in rural America most of my life, and I’m incredulous.

    Also, I’m going to go way out on a limb here and guess he entered the US at Calais, Maine. (That’d be a shock for anyone visiting the “greatest nation in the world” for the first time.)

  2. I saw Jacob Holdt present his slide show at UC Santa Barbara in 1988, I believe.

    It was particularly weird to see such a personal involvement in what might otherwise be a dry academic anthropological study.

    He hitchhiked across the US throughout the 70s, lived on welfare and food stamps through the 80s, stayed in ghettos, fell in love, photographed everyone he met, and included himself as part of the story. I feel lucky to have gotten to see the show.

    If you thought his captions were funny to read, check out his life history: http://www.american-pictures.com/english/jacob/lifehist.htm

  3. Jacob Holdt, Jacob Riis… Seems like once a century a dane comes to america to document the downside of the american dream.

  4. Ah, this guy MUST be a real satyrist.
    It simply could not be true that boingboing is advertising for a KKK supporter.
    No comments about “these thoughtful loving white knights”?

    Whats going on here?

    link history if you like to research that by yourself

    following links in hypertext
    American Pictures – gallery by Jacob Holdt
    some words on beloved anti racist KKK euphemic


  5. Jacob Holdt was struck by an America characterised by poverty and the exclusion of the socially disadvantaged.

    I wish people would keep focus on this.

    Capitalism does not benefit everyone.

    Of course, since most people are idiots… do we want them to benefit?

    In other words, are we making sure we starve idiots and not good people?

  6. John555: “It simply could not be true that boingboing is advertising for a KKK supporter.
    No comments about “these thoughtful loving whiteknights”?”

    The KKK-part was an important and insightful part for me. Jacob Holdt, as he wrote, tried to test his own “openmindedness”, wanted to be free from prejudices (which is: free) and so he got in contact with them and tried to find out, what’s going on with them. And of course, the moment, he met them, it changed his life. He described them as caring and nice, beautiful beings – as all humans. And so, the old and not very useful prejudice turned into something else, and that is: To find out, what makes people tick like they tick. As surly no one is born bad …

    And by the way: Jacob Holdt is surly not a supporter of the political ideologies of the KKK – but he treats them with the same respect, he tries to treat everyone and wants to be treated with. It’s about humans, not about objects …

    And I guess, that’s the same reason, why he went with the rockefellers or kennedys or whoever picked him up. You have to get to know them, to be able to say something about them as individual human beings. I think, that’s a really good thing to try out.

  7. great stuff, especially the klan pix. thansk for pointing them out jon5555.

    mazing how even the monsters of our mind seem human in person.

  8. Hey everybody

    I checked out the links posted above last night and got lost in his book for about four hours before falling asleep.

    Absolutely incredible. Thanks BB for posting this and thank you readers 2 & 3 for posting the link to his book.

    What an amazing person.

  9. Wow…a blast from my past. I had dinner with Mr. Holdt in 1997 when we contracted for him to do his slide show at our university.

    Usually us students would take the speaker/guest out to a nice fancy dinner which was always a treat for us poor students. Mr. Holdt insisted on eating in the dining hall. He didn’t want to have anything to do with fancy dinner.

    I remember he had a braid coming off the bottom of his beard that was impressively long. At some point during dinner I commented about it and learned that it was older than I.

    He was a quiet, calm, soul with respect for all people. I remember disagreeing with some of the starkness of his political opinions and captions. I also remember that, as a middle-class suburban kid, I had never seen people living the way he showed them to me. I think his slide show did tremendous benefit to the 1500 students who watched it that night.

    If you ever have an opportunity to see him present, I highly recommend it.

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