Part IV: A Disappearing America

Art Dealer, Curator and Writer Charles Guice expands on his commentary from Nueva Luz volume 17:1, Transforming Destiny Into Awareness: The Photographs of Baldomero Fernandez, Thomas Holton and Alex Leme. In this post, Charles analyzes the work of social documentary photographer, Thomas Holton. Guice draws out the similarities between Holton’s and Robert Frank’s approaches to capturing quotidian American life. Like master photographer Robert Frank, Holton uses imagery to critique the commonly accepted notion of the American Dream. This is the fourth blog post in a five part series. Read part 1, part 2 and part 3 by clicking on the underlined text.

Transforming Destiny Into Awareness: A Disappearing America

Thomas Holton In Between Classes, 2006
Thomas Holton
In Between Classes, 2006. (© Copyright Thomas Holton. All rights reserved.)

The enduring legacy of the pioneering photographers Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Joel Meyerowitz is evidenced in the work of a new generation of artists: Baldomero Fernandez, Thomas Holton and Alex Leme. Capturing images that eschew explanation in words, their photographs of a new American reality seek to transform destiny into awareness.

Thomas Holton’s After 35 Years, Gladys Is Retiring offers a similar reevaluation of the American dream. Shortly after earning a degree from the State University of New York, Gladys began teaching math at the Gelinas Junior High School in Setauket, a village on the North Shore of Long Island, New York. Settled in 1655, the hamlet’s quaint, New England-style village green features a millpond, a park and an historic post office.

Born during the post-World War II baby boom, Gladys was a true child of the 50s. America stood “at the summit of the world”: triumphant in war, its middle class was earning the highest wages in the world and much of the society was reveling in a decade of prosperity.

Shared values of thrift, hard work, trust and honesty—notwithstanding an ever-present stain of racial discrimination—led many to embrace the country’s growing sense of optimism and the dream of financial security and stability. And like most, Gladys believed her “American dream” included marriage, two children and a home.

Thomas Holton Thanksgiving, 2007
Thomas Holton
Thanksgiving, 2007 (© Copyright Thomas Holton. All rights reserved.)

But after thirty-five years, Gladys’ faith and optimism was being challenged. The pension and social security that was to serve as the basis of her retirement income had not kept pace with the country’s rising costs. Now single, and the parent of two adult children, her future bore little resemblance to what she had imagined or planned for. For Gladys, the reality of the America that Robert Frank had so adeptly photographed fifty years earlier was being made all too real.

Avoiding oversentimentality, Holton’s 2009 series uniquely captures Gladys’ obvious disillusionment. In the image In Between Classes, Holton photographs the stationary woman as her students, in motion and out of sharp focus, pass before and behind her. Photographed against a wall and just within the frame, the image serves to present Gladys as she might perceive herself, marginalized and ineffectual.

In Thanksgiving, Holton deftly captures her quiet disillusionment in his photograph of Gladys’ Thanksgiving Day table. Gladys will spend the holiday alone, snapshots of her children fixed upright at place settings in lieu of seats that will remain empty. And it is here that Holton’s photographs share much with Frank’s. Like his, Holton’s work captures a nation’s sense of detachment and loneliness. And, like Frank’s again, Holton’s series is not meant to be an indictment of the society, but a glimpse into the lives lived by many of its citizens.

Thomas Holton Corvette, 2006
Thomas Holton
Corvette, 2006 (© Copyright Thomas Holton. All rights reserved.)

Born in Guatemala City, Guatemala in 1969 to a White American father and a Chinese-born mother, Holton, began pursuing photography after completing his undergraduate degree.

He ultimately earned an M.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2005. But Holton credits his late father, a documentary photographer, with his desire to “explore the world and discover himself along the way.”

As social critic, Holton is at his best here. Photographing Gladys as she considers purchasing a new car, he captures the picture of a woman who shows little excitement for her impending decision. Is it because she can only afford to purchase the Toyota instead of a Corvette? We never learn why, but the current downturn has left many feeling little of the optimism held by the country’s previous generations. And despite the wealth and opulence in the communities around her and where she teaches, Gladys’ world is filled with discontent, alienation and resignation.

Next, Part V: A New American Destiny

Previously, Part III: A New American Reality

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