Monday, February 2, 2015

American Pictures

American Pictures

I have a slightly battered autographed copy of Jacob Holdt's
American Pictures. In the eighties, during my first (failed) attempt
to get a PhD, the author presented a show of the pictures the book was
based on at UMaine. Quite impressed, I talked to him and bought the
book. It was fairly soon after it was published.
It's three decades later. Another in a series of blizzards hit
Penobscot County. I wanted to do something special on the snow day.
I decided to reread this book and see how much had changed for better
or worse. Joey cat was only too happy to cuddle on my lap as I read
and contemplated.
Holdt arrived in America a century after another Denmark born
consciousness raising photographer, Jacob Riis. He spent six years
hitchhiking around the United States, staying with the rich and the
poor, collecting their stories, and taking pictures. He returned to
Denmark with 15,000. In those days before digital cameras people had
to pay for film, flash, and developing. This was quite an investment,
especially for someone with no steady source of income. A slide show
he created with the pictures and showed first at his father's church
became very much in demand. A publisher asked Holdt to turn it into a
The pictures are the core of the book. They cover the full
gamut of human experience and are not for the faint of heart. (Some
might be put off by scenes involving nudity, intimacy, and drug
shooting. I was deeply troubled by pictures like the ones showing
children with rat bites and a mother gazing into the coffin of her
four-year-old.). The man doesn't pull any punches. Alongside the
grimness, though, there are photos of great tenderness and beauty like
one in which a grandmother hugs her grandbaby.
Reading the narrative is sort of like gold mining. There are a
number of times it gets rambling and hard to follow. And some folks
might find Holdt's lifestyle during the six years offputting. But
gems of real insight bordering on precognition keep popping up. His
big observations are spot on...
...sadly even today. Here are just a few things that are as
true, if not more so:
He talked at great length about the gap between the rich and the
poor. These days it's even wider with much of the middle class
slipping into the precariousness of the very poor.
You know the welfare cheating Governor LePage is so obsessed
with eliminating? He had something to say about that. "Cruelty to
those stigmatized mothers originates in politicians' hysterical
speeches about 'welfare loafers,' speeches designed to distract
attention from the way these same politicians hand out billions in
welfare to billionaires for oil depletion, agribusiness subsidies
etc. They create a climate in which the poor have to run the gauntlet
of elaborate, lengthy investigation and follow-up harassment to get
their few crumbs."
When Holdt was taking the pictures desegregation laws were being
enforced with some segments of the white population resisting quite
vehemently and, in some cases, violently. These days separate but
unequal is enforced by economics rather than brute force. White
flight leaves inner cities quite impoverished. In Maine schools are
funded primarily by property tax. No wonder the biggest predictor of
a school's standardized testing is the income level of the parents..
In this review I am not challenging you to read one particular
book. I would like you to take the challenge I gave myself. Read a
book of social analysis written a few decades ago and ask what has
stayed the same and what has changed for better or worse. I think it
will be an eye opening experience for you as it was for me.
On a personal note, Sunday in church I learned of the unexpected death
of my good friend Andy Frace. He was being treated for cancer, but
people thought he was getting better. He was a gifted educator who
ran the RSU 26 alternate high school. He got to know his students at
a very deep level and could not rest if any of them had difficulties
he didn't have the solution to. He was also a charasmatic person with
a dry sense of humor who drew people to him. He will be very much
My heart goes out to Andy's beloved wife, Pam, his other family
members, and his friends, colleagues, and students.
Julia Emily Hathaway

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