A note on content in poor cinema—
critical attractions in Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures

by J. Ronald Green

.....to travel with no money into the heart of America

In connection with its recent (Apr 21-Oct 31, 2021) one-person show of the work of African American filmmaker, Arthur Jafa, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, north of Copenhagen, sponsored a conversation between Jafa and Danish photographer and filmmaker Jacob Holdt.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

To open the discussion, Jafa said to Holdt:

“I grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the middle of the Delta. I love William Eggleston’s work quite a bit. And it’s obviously very great work as political photography. But I always felt like there’s a wall of aestheticism between what it is he takes pictures of and the work itself. And that’s not a critique, that’s just a part of his work. I just had never seen images of the South before I saw your pictures, outside of my family’s photo albums—that would be like the only equivalent of it. If I had to put one question to you it would be how did you get these pictures? How did you manage the level of intimacy or access?”

Holdt, director of American Pictures,[2] responded,

“An important answer to your question is to travel with no money.”[3]

This essay is a heuristic exploration of a cinema of poverty. Holdt’s film—composed of still photos, intertitles, and sound—represents his lifelong, in-person testimonial of U.S. poverty and racism. Holdt deploys familiar attractions such as spectacle, sex and violence, and celebrity to dramatize his portrayal of U.S. inequities. I would expect most viewers of American Pictures to relate to, as I did and as Jafa did, the life-risking breadth and depth of this outsider filmmaker’s picture of the United States. That picture, produced in the 1970s and 80s, is as relevant today as it was then. In fact, Holdt—in response to the Black Lives Matter movement—is currently updating the book that he produced from the slide show and film—the working title of the updated book is “Roots of Oppression.”[4] My own book manuscript, from which this essay is drawn, discusses details of the original film version of American Pictures, including content, methods, critical targets, and issues. It analyzes those details in the light of the film’s effectiveness and critical integrity, particularly in relation to its financing. The analysis sometimes compares richer cinemas to Holdt’s film, but my focus remains on poor cinema. I have, in draft form, a companion book manuscript focusing on rich cinema. This analysis of poor cinema grew out of my two books on African American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, where I argued for a middle-class cinema, an idea supported by analysis of the content and style of all Micheaux’s extant films.[5]

The idea of “poor cinema” is related to prior formulations in left film-studies political analyses, such as Julio García Espinosa’s essay, “For an Imperfect Cinema,” and Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s manifesto, “Toward a Third Cinema,” as well as the film movements of Third Cinema and Tricontinentalism discussed in the edited collections Questions of Third Cinema and “Rethinking” Third Cinema. More recently, the poor-cinema idea has been briefly summarized and re-theorized by Hito Steyerl in The Wretched of the Screen.[6]

The above exchange between Jafa and Holdt about the origins of Holdt’s intimate, authentic pictures of Black American life, was primarily concerned with the content of Holdt’s pictures. Most of my book manuscript on American Pictures also deals with content and its relation to money. But the same poverty that conditions Holdt’s content may also affect his aesthetics, which Jafa and Holdt imply. In another article (see endnote 1) I take a close look at how Holdt’s “poor” style—analogous to Oscar Micheaux’s style in racist 1920s and 30s United States—has a discoverable aesthetic, a style unique to the material conditions of its production.

Holdt’s inexpensive camera

My main purpose is to examine how film content may relate to the amount of money spent on the film’s production. Holdt has suggested that the uniqueness of his images and sounds derives from the material conditions of the film’s production.

American Pictures’ material conditions

Jacob Holdt is a Danish high-school dropout who hitchhiked through 48 states of the United States between 1971 and 1976 taking pictures of the conditions of poverty and wealth among the 350 families who hosted him during those vagabond years. He started with about $40 and was given a cheap Danish point-and-shoot still camera, and later a Canon Dial still camera, with which he took some 15,000 pictures. About 700 of them appear in the book version of American Pictures and some 3,000 in the film.

Calling American Pictures a film raises one of numerous problems surrounding this media project, the problem of its medium. I saw it first at Film Forum in New York City, a venue that is in the business of showing real movies. So for me it is without question a movie, and one that works as a movie as well as any in my experience. It is also true, however, that the movie I saw is no longer available, and not because it failed, or was neglected, or was bought by a distributor who mutilated it as were so many of the independent films discussed in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars.[7] Rather, it no longer exists because it has been subjected to constant revision by its own maker. That happened because of its success. It is the most protean major work of film I know of, much more so than Kenneth Anger’s famous multiple versions of Lucifer Rising, for example. In trying to get a fix on American Pictures, a critic faces not just the maker’s constant revision, but also a proliferation of media forms: it is a series of still photos—nowhere is there a moving image on the movie screen—it is a slide show; it is a book of photos and text; it is a 35mm film; it is a traveling photography exhibition. And lacking through all of these versions is a single moving image.

The movie project can morph into these many forms for the same reason that it was so powerful in its original form. There, the purpose of the pictures and spoken words and music that make up the film was not to make a masterpiece or to maximize profit, but to accomplish an important personal and social mission within shifting circumstances. The film is protean, shape-shifting, because it must deal with an audience that, itself like Proteus, tends to squirm, dodge, and shape-shift in order to deal with the painful questions posed by the film's content. The film holds on to its audience, parrying every backlash, defending its own strong points, and assessing any of its own weak points that viewer criticism may expose—and it changes its own shape too in order to keep to its mission. It does this textually, via transparent auto-critique within the work. The film changes form across the several decades of its engagement with audiences, through revision of its versions and its media throughout its history as a time-based work. There is a dogged ethical intelligence behind this film. A maker’s committed or obsessive intelligence revealed in projects such as this, and the conditions that encourage or discourage them, are the subject of my project on poor cinema.

Content as attractions

In this essay, I organize instances of Holdt’s outsider content under the category of attractions. I’ve chosen attractions that are common in mainstream films, such as those of Hollywood. Many film critics have discussed cinematic attractions, most notably Sergei Eisenstein and Tom Gunning.[9] In this essay, I define attractions as content meant to shock or surprise in order to draw viewers’ attention.

To focus on attractions and entertainment value within a political documentary is not often given serious attention by critics. In film studies, mainstream narrative cinema has been subjected to ideological analysis for decades—no entertainment has been found free of ideology. American Pictures does provide an ideological critique of the U.S. and western mainstream in the “attractions” it uses.

For the general intellectual viewer, one attraction is to claim the breadth of issues and the ethical high ground. Progressives may both cheer and critique the film, and conservatives may criticize and denounce it, but both camps may be (and have been) thoroughly engaged in the viewing process. However, the attractions of such a project for an audience seeking entertainment are less obvious; and in considering the many viewers who seek escape through experiences of guilty pleasure and outright transgression of societal norms, the idea that they might find common attractions in a committed film like this might be a factor that critics overlook.

Such familiar attitudes toward viewership exist in the film market; mainstream assumptions may, however, be challenged by some aspects of American Pictures. Jacob Holdt has presented this film extensively throughout the world, especially to university audiences, especially in the United States, hoping to confront future generations of leaders—in that he has been successful. But Holdt has a wider audience in mind as well. And in fact he is famous in Denmark and was very successful with his film and book throughout Europe.

Holdt and host with another large audience for one of his slide-show tours.

The film is packed with uniquely tough content. The intelligence, or lack of it, and the protean suppleness of the film’s style, are academically interesting, but the film’s jaw-dropping array of attractions appeals to interests far beyond the academy. Film scholar Bill Nichols posited that social and personal documentaries are pleasurable because of epistephelia—the desire to know things.[10] It is not  necessary, however, to rely on viewer epistephilia to explain the broad appeal of American Pictures.

Celebrity and the Gump syndrome

The most astonishing category of attractions that the film relies on is the Forrest Gump, or Zelig, syndrome. Time and again Holdt turns up smack in the middle of—and interacting with—important historical events. Repeatedly he is found hanging out with celebrities and figures of great power and influence. Most documentary makers, especially independent poor ones, do not have this kind of access. Important politicians and celebrities are normally inaccessible except to other figures of power and influence. They are, in the course of their daily life, usually insulated from high-school dropouts, undocumented aliens, and homeless derelicts such as Holdt .

The epic journey of Holdt’s vagabondage is dotted with what I call “Forrest Gump moments” that are sometimes hard to believe, but are accompanied by Holdt’s incontrovertible photographic evidence, as well as by heaps of detailed testimony that include hundreds of witnesses. Holdt turns up with the American Indians at Wounded Knee. There we see him in improbable situations for an outsider documentarian:

Newspaper clipping of Holdt, in handcuffs, with camera and short-hair wig, at Wounded Knee. Picture, taken with Holdt’s then-damaged camera, of one of the fighters at Wounded Knee.
Armed fighters at Wounded Knee. Holdt with pistol posing with armed fighter at Wounded Knee.
Traumatized Indian woman grieving beside her slain husband’s blood at Wounded Knee. Later, to Holdt’s dismay, she sought comfort with Holdt in his sleeping bag. The grieving woman’s husband’s blood.

The level of intimacy represented in these images and narrational reports would be very unusual in filmmaking with higher production values. The same is true of the many examples to follow.

At another time and place, near Charleston, South Carolina, Holdt was living with a 104-year-old woman, her 97-year-old husband and 77-year-old daughter in a “shack that resembled the medieval houses in the Open Air Museum in Copenhagen,” and after a hard morning of chopping wood to heat this shack, he managed to make his way to a press conference with Julie Nixon in Charleston with a big hole in his tramp-like pants.

104-year-old woman who sheltered Holdt near Charleston, South Carolina in their “shack that resembled the medieval houses in the Open Air Museum in Copenhagen." Mother carrying the wood.
Daughter and 104-year-old mother getting wood for their shack, or “medieval” house, where Holdt was staying. Daughter, 77, and father, 97.

President Nixon’s daughter was visiting handicapped children and Holdt ruined her press conference by asking her if she didn’t think it was hypocritical to visit these handicapped children after Nixon had just vetoed a bill to aid the handicapped. Julie Nixon was flustered and unable to continue; Holdt discovered later that his question was not included in the evening news broadcast of the event. But, as always, Holdt does present his own photographic evidence of the encounter, thus, incidentally, providing a demonstration of how corporate media manage the news. Holdt’s account bears witness to the importance of providing more access to, and promotion of, inexpensive, non-corporate points of view.

Holdt was living precariously with various Black families in Washington, North Carolina, when a friend of one of his friends, Joanne Little, killed a white jailer who raped her; her case became an international cause celebre and Holdt’s photographs of Little’s living conditions contributed to the legal case that eventually gained her acquittal.

Holdt with Joanne Little during the successful defense process for her killing of an abusive prison guard, Raleigh, North Carolina. Angela Davis speaking at a rally in defense of Joanne Little, Oakland, California.