Saturday, June 2, 2007

Jacob Riis, Peter Sekaer, and Jacob Holdt on poverty in the US

From the inception of photography, poverty and social concern have been subjects before the lens of countless photographers. Often those photographers have had to tread a fine line between being sensitive and being exploitative. Photography for the ethically minded, is often a medium of removal. The photographer in creating an image, is often “using” the subject for an agenda. Even if the agenda is for the good, it often is at the expense of the example set in the photograph. The subjects have to suffer the common indignity of being labeled according to the image and yet the photographer escapes cleanly. Once the image exists the subjects have no further control over its translation.

At times the process set forth by the photographer is so un-self congratulatory and egoless that it is able to get to the heart of a subject with minimal betrayal. The three photographers featured in this post I feel were able to describe and not exploit their subjects inconsequential to the level of despair.

They share basic similarities. All are from Denmark, all came to the Unites States at one point in their lives, and all were compelled to investigate the social landscape of the poor as they saw it in their newly adopted country. And, they all did so roughly forty-five years from one another respectively. Looking at a cross-section of the work, they provide an important description of poverty over the past century.

Jacob Riis, the most well known of the three, worked the beat as a police reporter for several New York papers before publishing his magnum opus How The Other Half Lives in 1890.

Peter Sekaer studied under George Grosz and Hans Hofmann at the Art Students League and by 1936 was working for the United States Housing Authority ''to take the slum pictures of 20 cities'' in which the authority was planning projects.

Jacob Holdt traveled around the Unites States from 1970 to 1975 after unintentionally starting what would become his life’s work that in 1977 was published in the book American Pictures.

The approach of all three was direct and responsive to what they saw and experienced. These images, devoid of stylization, show us the facts and their power derives from this unaffected documentation. Many comparisons have been made between Jacob Riis and Jacob Holdt. (On his website, Holdt even compares his astrological chart to that of Riis.) What is genuine from all three is the belief that, if seen, the work (photographs) can effect social change.

Jacob Holdt United States 1970 – 1975 published by Steidl, takes a second look at the photography of this Danish “vagabond sociologist.” His book American Pictures (the first Danish edition was called Amerikanske Billerder) was a wake up call towards a complacent society ignorant of the effects of economic and social inaction. It holds a mirror up to our inability to communicate past our own self interest and self justifications to help the poor gain a foothold out of their situation. Holdt recognized this blindspot as a deep rooted problem in his own country as well.

One thing that sets Jacob Holdt apart from the other two is that he was working on his own without any “official’ capacity to help with his efforts. Riis and Sekaer both had organizations that I am sure could or would assist in their gaining access if necessary. What Holdt did apparently to his advantage, was play up his foreignness. He hitchhiked using a banner that read “TOURING USA FROM DENMARK.” I think this was both enticing and disarming.

A different aspect of Holdt that I find fascinating is his seemingly divine compassion for the human beings he encountered. Although heavily slanted to the poor, (he seems to pity the rich for their incomprehensibility towards the poor), he also goes as far as to embrace racist klansmen. In its entirety, the work displays acceptance. He is able to walk a fine line of recognizing people’s flaws without looking down on them or judging them which I personally, am not capable of doing. This inability refers to the initial instinct in people (and me) to express a stereotypical racist with a southern drawl. This is “learned” much in the way that racism is “learned.” Holdt places the blame at the feet of the larger societal structures that either encourage or ignore the misunderstandings between people.

I am certain that this ability to face another human being without judgment was the fruit that enticed people to invite him into their lives and become willing unexploited accomplices.

Like Riis, he was never educated towards the medium so his reactions with his photography are raw, immediate and unflinching. Through the text we see Holdt discovering the deep flaws of the US and in turn forming his politics with each new experience. Unlike Riis, he seems more concerned with the individual and not “types” as Riis seems to set forth as examples.

This new edition of Holdt’s work sits on the shelf a little closer to other art books than the strict social documentary tradition that Holdt was pursuing. It is very cleanly designed compared to the barrage of American Pictures. The adherence of one picture to a page allows us to examine these images without the visual clutter and unsophisticated croppings as we had seen them published before. When seen in this new form we can now appreciate Holdt’s natural ability to put together some great photographs.

That being said it does re-contextualize the work into something else. Although still a powerful group of photographs, we only really feel his frustrations within the two pages of captions which include small snippets of text from the original. As text was so important in American Pictures, it was equally important in How the Other Half Lives. Both photographers seem to recognize the inability of photography to serve the subject alone without the added strength of verbiage.

I have two slightly odd sensations while looking at the original American Pictures and the new United States 1970 – 1975. The first is that I wish I had seen the book and been able to respond to it back in 1977 when it was first published. Reason being, as with most photographs, these images seem locked into a specific time because of their descriptions of cars and clothes and the surrounding landscape. Although poverty is as devastating and entrapping today as it was in the mid-seventies, while looking at these photos I tend to think of only “back then” and not “now.” I think it would be difficult to make a case for societal change today by using these images. Those that are sensitive may be able to make that leap.

The second, slightly odd sensation I have is that with this new book, we are now placing this body of work further into the realm of “art.” Perhaps even “Art.” The show that accompanies this book is touring venues from the Museum Folkwang in Essen to the Musee Nicephore Niepce in France. I would think it an odd and somewhat disturbing vision to see this work appearing in some white walled gallery in Chelsea.

These two books, American Pictures and United States 1970-1975, appeal to two different segments of readers. American pictures will serve the angry activist deep inside us while United States 1970-1975 will temporarily satiate the image hunter.

Note: The only one of the three that hasn’t been granted a substantial book for his efforts is Peter Sekaer of whom I have written about before. This is apparently going to materialize within the next year or two so keep a look out.

Book Available Here (United States 1970-1975)

Book Available Here (American Pictures Hardcover)

Book Available Here (American Pictures Paperback)

Book Available Here (How The Other Half Lives)

Book Available Here (Peter Sekaer American Pictures)