American Pictures  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

American Pictures (1977) is a photo book by Danish photographer Jacob Holdt featuring many images of poverty-stricken Americans, reminiscent of the work of American photographer Dorothea Lange.

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.

He sold blood plasma twice a week to buy film. He stayed in more than 400 homes - from the poorest migrant workers to America's wealthiest families (for instance, the Rockefellers) - recording these encounters over 3000 photographs taken with a cheap camera. His work captures the daily struggle of the American underclass and contrasts it with images of the life of America's elite. Upon returning to Denmark in 1977, Holdt began lecturing on social differences in the United States and published a book: American Pictures. He later presented his slideshow at over 300 college campuses across the United States.

The book had a profound impact on the youth in Scandinavia and Germany, and the Communist bloc saw a chance to use his work against President Carter’s human rights campaign. Holdt was approached by the KGB a few months after his slideshow became a success and he saw a chance with the help of the Soviet Union to penetrate the Marxist bureaucracy in Angola. Here it was his intention to spend the money earned from American Pictures in building a hospital in support of the anti-apartheid struggle.

However, when his book was published in 1977 the KGB revealed to him that it was their intention to use it in an all-out campaign against Carter to try to demonstrate that human rights were just as bad off in America as in Russia. Only a month after its publication Holdt therefore hired his lawyer, Søren B. Henriksen, to stop his own book all over the world. Except for Germany, Holland and Scandinavia, where they already had contracts with his Danish publisher, he managed to stop it, and did not release it again until the end of Communism.

As a result of losing most of his expected income from the book, Holdt could not finance a hospital, but only a nursing school built for the Namibian resistance group SWAPO in Kwanzu Zul in Angola with matching funds from the European Union. After the liberation of Zimbabwe in 1982 he also supported projects there. At the end of the cold war he was briefly accused of having been a KGB-agent, but it was easy for his publisher, Dagbladet Information, to show that he had actually worked for the other side and had even flown President Carter’s human rights envoy over to approve his film manuscript intended for the American market.

Example photos

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "American Pictures" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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