The dream is over
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Racism, poverty, protests: black and white masterpieces by Matt Black and Jerry Berndt can now be seen in Hamburg’s Deichtorhallen. They document the misery of America and are extremely topical.
Mhe date of the US presidential election on November 3rd is drawing nearer the danger that Donald Trump will either be elected to a second term or not accept his defeat – plunging the country into crisis. Against the background of the upcoming event, but also in view of the mass protests against racism and the corona pandemic, the double exhibition that is now taking place in the House of Photography in the Deichtorhallen is extremely topical.
With Matt Black (born 1970) and Jerry Berndt (1943–2013), two American documentary photographers are introduced who devote their attention to the disadvantaged and the precarious. Both positions make it clear that political failure primarily affects the losers of the American dream. “The pictures show a completely different face of the USA than Trump is presenting,” says Dirk Luckow, director of the Deichtorhallen. The Magnum photographer Black deals with poverty in the country; The journalistic images of Berndt, who was part of the protest movement, document America’s social condition.
Poverty is part of the US system
Black’s “American Geography” photo series, comprising around 80 works, is now being shown outside of America for the first time. To get a picture of the poverty in the country, the photographer traveled over 100,000 miles through 46 US states for seven years. Even from California’s Central Valley, which is considered one of the poorest regions in the United States, he visited communities with a poverty rate above 20 percent. “To this day there is a myth that America is the land of opportunity. But that myth is refuted by the real existence of the places I photographed, ”explained Black. Poverty is part of the system.
“The project reveals a very American approach,” says Ingo Taubhorn, who set up the show together with Black, who switched on via zoom. This refers to the tradition of the road trip – advertised by Jack Kerouac’s book “On the Road” or the cult film “Easy Rider”. However, what the photographer saw and captured on the way does not fit into the road movie romance. Neglected, dead places, dilapidated dwellings, car cemeteries, emptiness. And again and again people who stand in this environment, sometimes only visible as a shadow or silhouette, sometimes smoking or praying, mostly resigned and inactive.
The high aesthetics of the black and white pictures contrast with the hopelessness they radiate. In a cabinet there are photos of things that Black picked up on the streets of the New World and used them to create a second portrait of America: a broken fly swatter, a fan with the stars and stripes, playing cards, a page from a burned Bible, an empty lighter. Black has assembled entire collections of discarded objects: flat cigarette packets, coat hangers, cutlery and signs of beggars. The additional excerpts from Black’s diaries are also depressing to read.
Jerry Berndt captured the arbitrariness of the police
“Beautiful America” is the ironic name of the photojournalist Jerry Berndt’s exhibition. Between the 1960s and 1980s, he documented American reality from the perspective of those who protested. The subjects of his pictures are just as topical as the grievances they reveal: racism, homelessness, nuclear power.
Berndt also included the resistance to the Vietnam War in his work by taking photos of demonstrations. For example, he captured the arbitrariness of the police with a series of images against the Seabrook nuclear power station, New Hampshire; the state power repulses the people. At Berndt’s, the police are standing in the middle of the picture with their arms crossed, while the demonstrators are pushed to the edge. “This photo is an example of Berndt’s way of seeing”, says curator Sabine Schnakenberg: “Observing the differences is his strength.”
The photographer, who was persecuted by the FBI for his activities, found his subjects in shopping malls and diners, in parking lots, in the context of miss contests and parades. He called a particularly impressive series “Missing Persons: The Homeless”. A black woman has just lost her apartment, the baby of homeless parents sleeps in a cardboard box and an old man doesn’t yet know that he will die in two weeks.
House of Photography: “Matt Black: American Geography”; “Jerry Berndt: Beautiful America”, until January 3, 2021