psy·chot·ic leop·ard sīˈkädik/ˈlepərd/ noun · anything that is funky, interesting, beautiful, niche, useful, and grabs one's attention

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How The Florida Project Brought Me back to one of the greatest American Pictures

Posted by Lisa Johnson on


I am not the kind of person who’s into “stuff.”  For special occasions, I like to be taken out to a funky ethnic restaurant, or even better, whisked away for a weekend.


Being a December baby, the holidays push right up against my birthday.  As I’d already had an awesome getaway earlier that month, I knew that another would be unrealistic, and that was fine.


However, when my boyfriend, Chris, started talking about how much I would love my Christmas gift way back in October, I knew he should stop getting his own expectations up.  He announced that it would make me cry, if certain things “fell into place.”


This isn’t going to be one of those mushy engagement stories, so get those thoughts out of your head, and read on.


Chris is one of those people whose child-like excitement translates into him not being able to shut up about it when he attaches himself to a plan.  It’s a wonderful trait, but this time, I was nervous.  He was being unrealistic.  I couldn’t think of any object that would bring me to tears, and believed that so much build would only lead to disappointment.


Before our families got together that day, he’d sent a photo of his boys holding the box with my gift inside, and I thought, there's no way I will ever love this as much as he thinks I will, and tried to think of ways to disguise my anticipated disappointment.


Finally, it was time.  The box was light, and said, “fragile.”  I opened it, and slid out a medium sized frame around a piece of thin cardboard, in whose center was a photograph of Chris and I in front of an ice cream place in Cape Cod.  Nothing special.  Oh jeez, I thought, feeling my stomach drop.


“I don't get it.”


“Take the cardboard off, you dope,” he laughed.


The first thing I noticed was the signature on the photograph.  In the upper left-hand corner were the words, “Lisa, thanks for remembering me.”  And suddenly, I felt something, a warm little flame in my gut.


The picture showed a couple kissing through jail bars. Underneath were the words, American Pictures, and more fine print.  The inscription was handwritten by Jacob Holdt, a photographer I'd met thirty years before, during my freshman year in college.


Jacob was from Denmark, and had hitchhiked about 100,000 miles around America, living with and photographing urban poverty for more than a decade. He himself had no money, and had sold his own blood twice a week to pay for film. His photographs, book, and American Pictures presentation were one of the most powerful shows I’d ever seen, and I’d told him so afterwards, even splurging on a poster, which he’d signed for me.  


The artwork had been a close-up of a little black girl looking through a ripped piece of screen door, and I loved it, so much so that I’d moved it from my dorm room into the office where I worked as a teacher’s assistant.  I’d taped it to the wall just over the chair where I always sat, so I could share it with other students, and see it all the time.


But one day, I'd come in to a huge blank spot on the wall.  Someone had stolen it!  I couldn't understand who would want a raggedy-edged poster personally inscribed to me.  Yet, on some level I realized that the image was indeed compelling, so much so that perhaps someone else felt the need to own it.


Still, I felt the loss.  There were so few “things” I ever really became attached to, and this had been one of them.  I never thought about trying to replace it, because it wasn’t just about the art, but the experience, the show and meeting Jacob himself.


Shoot ahead 30 years later. I had just watched “The Florida Project,” one of the best movies I’d seen in ages, and it moved me.  In the process of urging Chris to go see it, I’d made the connection to Jacob Holdt and American Pictures, and had told Chris what had happened with my poster.


Chris and I are both extraordinarily chatty.  We actually used to print out copies of our text messages from our first year together, and they were so voluminous that it got to be too much.  So I had no idea that he had decided that this anecdote would be so significant.  He’d quickly written Jacob’s name on a napkin, having no idea how to spell it, where he was located, and if he were even alive.


Chris is unstoppable when on a mission.  He managed to find Jacob living in Copenhagen, contacted him, guessed at the image I’d described, copied it onto a poster, and jumped through hoops trying to figure out international prepaid postage so that Jacob could sign and send it back. It worked!  Jacob was lovely, happy to help, and things did indeed “fall into place.”


I was not crying as I held the framed image before me, but was deeply moved.  The couple kissing was not a photo I specifically remembered, but the imagination and effort that went into making it happen was one of the greatest things someone had ever done for me.


As I continued to admire it in the kitchen, Chris mentioned that Jacob had also sent a couple of other things along.  He rummaged around in his office while we got dessert ready, and brought them out.  The first was a pamphlet from the original 1980s show - I was amazed!


Underneath, was a heavier piece of paper folded into sixths - something bigger. Unfolding it carefully, my breath caught in my throat.  Even Chris had not been aware of what he’d actually done. For this was the original poster, the very same one, which had been taken off my wall, of the little girl looking out the screen door.  She had come back to me.  He had even signed it, in the very same place, with the very same words: To Lisa, with love, Jacob Holdt.

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  • Oh, what I lovely story. Thank you for the Christmas card. Read my new book “Roots of oppression” where you will find your two pictures on page 158 and 422.
    Help me find an American publisher – or sell it in your store.
    With love
    Jacob Holdt

    Jacob Holdt on
  • That’s my Chris. Very thoughtful and awesome guy. Enjoy.

    Jeff Brogowski on
  • This post almost brought ME to tears. Hang the poster somewhere special.

    dessertsnob on

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