Case Study: Jacob Holdt

Text and research: Gwendolyn Fässler, assistant curator/research trainee, and Doris Gassert, research curator

Danish photographer Jacob Holdt (b. 1947) hitchhiked through the USA from 1970 to 1975. During this time, over 350 people offered him a temporary home and allowed him to plunge into their lifeworlds as a considerate guest, friend or lover. At once shocked and fascinated by their son’s reports, Holdt’s parents sent him a Canon Dial 35 half-frame camera, which he then used to document his experiences. This gave rise to over 15,000 snapshot-style images of people in their environments going about their daily lives. They cover the whole gamut of human relationships – including violence, poverty and crime as well as affection and love. In 1977, Holdt published his photos, accompanied by extensive descriptions, in the book American Pictures in a bid to draw attention to the poverty and exploitation experienced by the Black population. The book soon went on to become an international bestseller and Holdt returned to the USA to give slide shows pointing up the profound social divide and devastating social conditions.

While Holdt is still involved in the fight for social justice, he has also been presenting his photographs in an art context since the early 2000s. Holdt, who had been presenting his socially critical photographs in an educational context for many years, initially refused to exhibit them as art without a text to go with them. For him there seemed to be too much ambiguity in stripping his work down to the aesthetic impact of his images, which would run the risk of being instrumentalised.

Nevertheless, today his pictures are shown in museums and exhibitions detached from their original narrative context. In its collection, Fotomusuem Winterthur holds a four-part slide projection which comprises 160 photographs from Holdt’s extensive archive from American Pictures without their original contextualisation.

In the run-up to this exhibition, the museum worked closely with Holdt to adapt the work. The image selection was edited together and a conversation with Jacob Holdt was added to accompany the projection. The case study on Holdt develops over the course of the exhibition run of A Show of Affection and weaves his images into a web of varying viewpoints and narrative levels.

Please see the German version of the Case Study for an outline of the research questions.

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