If you don’t have enough reasons to leave Twitter, I may have another:

Several years ago, someone on Twitter recommended David Campany’s The Open Road, and I guess whoever it was knew me too well. If you haven’t read my review of Campany’s book, in short, it’s a collection of brief reviews of about a dozen photobooks made on or about road trips across the United States. I swore I wouldn’t try to track down copies of every book mentioned in The Open Road, and looking at my library and to-review shelves, well….

[Apologies: this somehow snuck past the YouTube censors and I didn’t think to age-limit it. Head’s up: there are some NSFW pictures in the book, so beware. Also, it looks like I didn’t edit this one, so you get to see me check the framing and hear my “cut frame” finger snap and all. smh.]

tl;dr: American Pictures is absolutely amazing and worth whatever I paid for it. I’m privileged and grateful to have even this beat up, autographed copy.

Concept
Content
Design

Overall, I rate American Pictures a highly recommended 4.5 stars, and Campany knew what he was talking about: so far all of the books he talks about are just excellent.

After a series of missteps in his native Denmark—failing to follow in the family tradition of joining the state-run ministry; getting kicked out the Royal Danish Palace Guard and getting fired from various jobs; painting up the village church with bible quotations about building palaces to God while your neighbor suffers on earth and having his dad drive him to the edge of town and telling him to hitchhike off and never return; hosting various travelers, including some Vietnam War deserters and becoming rightly radicalized against violence and that national stain—Holdt fled to Canada. He heard of struggles in Central America and so decided to hitchhike there, through the United Stats of the early 1970s.

He never made it to Central America.

After a few months, he reestablished communications with his family and sent letters of his various experiences for sermon-fodder. His parents sent him a half frame camera to “prove” his stories; it was damaged during his time at Wounded Knee(!) and he bought a Canon Dial half frame, with which most of the pictures in the book were made, not that it matters. These letters, and others to friends in the US and elsewhere, with additional text written during and after the trip, make up the text of the book, which occupies more than half of the available space and is by turns inspiring, devastating, and intensely thought provoking here in 2023.

Holdt arrived in San Francisco in 1972 or so, with $40 and he vagabond-ed around for five years on a tourist visa, which had to be renewed in Canada or Mexico every three months, by selling plasma twice a week and receiving random donations from friendly people. Over the 5 years he reports never sleeping outside due to the kindness of strangers, who took him in night after night, seemingly often for simple human companionship, and sometimes for more prurient reasons. The whole saga is amazing: as mentioned above, Holdt was at Wounded Knee during the siege and he protested and worked with the United Farm Workers; most of the time, though, he stayed with poor people—who tend to be the most generous—for a night or three or five at a time, staying in the northern part of the country during the summer, and going south for the winter.

Two or three things in particular made me stop and go hummm…

First:

…I cannot avoid feeling that I too exploited the blacks, for I know all too well that these pictures will not benefit them. Whites will feel a little upset realizing that the underclass must suffer like this. But they will do nothing to chewing their own lifestyle… and to redistribute the goods of the earth. And so my pictures will only become a catharsis. Although I knew this beforehand and was often told so by the underclass blacks who had no illusions about trying to talk to the “inner goodness” in the white race, I nevertheless persisted and have thus betrayed both the blacks and the Third World…. I have created an entertainment and emotional release for the oppressors and thereby strengthened an unjust system.

Holdt, Jacob. American Pictures. American Pictures Foundation, Denmark, 1985. p. 167

SubhanAllah (Glory be to God)! Astaghfirullah, Astaghfirullah, Astaghfirullah (God forgive me)!

Second, and this is something unimaginable, yet aspirational, for me: throughout his travels, Holdt held to a philosophy of Always Saying Yes. As a straight, but not narrow, cis male, living as I do long after AIDS, I can’t imagine saying “yes” to random homosexual encounters. Likewise, as someone committed to nonviolence, I can’t imagine falling in with poor people who subsist partly through impulse-muggings. In general, I just have too much fear. I just seize up around strangers: I’m suspicious of motives, especially of white people, and really don’t care to talk to strangers much, though I will if I have to. Still, how freeing it would be to be able to just say yes, to just walk up to random people and strike up a conversation? And, no, I have no idea how to get here.

Third, after Holdt returned to Denmark and this series—and a first version of the book—made him famous, he returned to the US in the early 1980s to show copies to the people in it and get permission. He found almost everyone poorer and more afraid. Why? Well, Holdt blames Reagan’s war on the poor (and giveaways to corporations and wealthy people), and while there might be other reasons, this one seems likely, but what do I know: I wasn’t alive when he first traveled the US, and had barely started school when he returned, and when this book came out I was in the second or third grade.

I talked to Mom about this. She was in her late teens and twenties when Holdt first travelled around, and agreed that there was more general affluence (and easy feeling) in the 1970s, and more fear and struggle in the 1980s—and ever since—and mostly agreed that Reaganomics, which was a socialist boondoggle compared to things to which all later presidents signed their names.* And this makes me angry, sad, and I wonder if reminding the Boomer generations of the relative ease back when we taxed corporations and the rich appropriately might sway them away from demagogues who blame people with different skin tones, cultural and religions backgrounds, and gender and/or sexual preferences.

To be clear, People, by which I mean actual, human persons, are not generally the problem. We’re generally decent. It’s groups who band together to the exclusion of others that is the problem. Further giveaways to corporations and the super rich, and further barriers to social welfare WILL NOT SAVE US.

Anyway.

That’s all I have to say, and if you made it this far, thanks! Your reward is me reminding you that I’m available for Kofi, and that I have a YouTube where I share the unboxing videos: please like and subscribe, and thanks in advance!

American Pictures is readily available used, and it’s embarrassingly cheap. I’m not surprised. Who wants to be reminded? Astaghfirullah! May God guide us to better.


*At time of writing, the House Republicans are again threatening to shut down the government if Joe doesn’t roll back his Infrastructure bill, increase work requirements for food stamps and Medicare, and etc., and I have no illusions that good old Joe will cowtow to the fascists. (And by “fascist” here, I refer to the political philosophy itself, and not necessarily the racist, classist, sexist people who tend to promote such a philosophy over actually-existing representative Democracy (let alone ideal, direct Democracy).

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  1. I enjoy your reviews and often buy books you recommend.
    I also enjoy it when you go off at a tangent. Your political rant is particularly good today.
    As a white fella living in the Australian bush I always thought our politicians were a bunch of unprincipled crooks but yours make them look like angels.
    It is completely beyond me how these clowns keep getting elected, someone must like being downtrodden!
    Anyway just to let you know at least one of your readers enjoys your off topic comments.

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