"My parents - in disbelief of my written accounts - sent me after one year a pocket-size Canon Dial for my birthday asking me to send some pictures home. I had never photographed before and saw it first as my visual diary helping me to remember all the people who gave me hospitality and food in more than 400 homes over 5 years as a 'vagabond'. This is my term for a hitchhiker who with no exception says yes to every invitation he receives and thus throws himself into the arms of many abusive people whom - at least I - had been brought up to avoid in my safe Danish rectory. The half-frame camera took 72 pictures on a roll, so by selling my blood plasma twice a week for $5 each time, I could afford 2 rolls of film a week. Often I hitchhiked enormous distances to go to e.g. New Orleans, where the blood banks paid $6, but during the last two years I made small picture books to show to better-off drivers after which I often got small donations – the highest was $30 from a businessman in Philadelphia.
"Since I had to economize with the film I often sat for days with people whom I lived, not using the camera before I saw 'the right face' which I felt showed the situation before the interference of a stranger – and then shot just one or two pictures. My first priority was always survival - housing and food – and the photography only my extravagant hobby. Since American Pictures became a success in 1976, I have of course for 30 years been re-visiting all those friends – including my former muggers and rapists – and found it interesting that only a few of them can remember that I discretely had photographed them the first time I stayed with them."
With no formal training, using a half-frame camera, shooting flashlit color when social documentary work had traditionally been done in available light b/w, Holdt compiled an astonishing series of photographs of the American underbelly.
Unfortunately the first effort to distribute the work had some flaws. The 1985 book American Pictures may appeal to social workers but it doesn't really belong on a photographer's shelf. The layout is dense and the photos small. Most of Holdt's color shots were converted to grayscale, presumably to make publication easier.
The more recent United States 1970-1975 (Steidl 2007) made huge strides toward correcting things. Edited as much for photographic interest as for social impact, the book firmly anchors the joint between Robert Frank and Zoe Strauss. Well sequenced photos sit comfortably one per page. The colors and production quality are great. Not only is it a photographic force but I think its more subtle nature makes it a better tool for social change than American Pictures.
Which brings us to Holdt's website, probably the most massive of any photogra...,er, sorry, camera user on the planet. According to Holdt there are 20,000 of his photos online, not to mention slideshows and commentary. The strategy here is to hit the viewer over the head with social poverty, and if that doesn't work do it again. I think most people will get the message after browsing for five minutes. The site is impressive but, as with the original book, it would probably be more effective with some editing.
Not that Holdt cares. "Photography never interested me," he says in a recent interview, a statement which would be easier to take if he weren't such a damned good photographer.