This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – a review of Matt Black’s first book, American Geography: A Reckoning with a Dream. Also last chance for submissions to exhibit in the 2022 Head On Photo Festival closes Sunday 20 February.
Matt Black – American Geography: A Reckoning with a Dream
American freelance documentary photographer Matt Black’s project The Geography of Poverty, which maps in pictures the extent of domestic poverty in the US, has been published as a book: American Geography: A Reckoning with a Dream.
Black’s first monograph which features 97 images, confirms why his gritty, contrasty, black and white visual signature has positioned him as a leading voice in documentary photography.
This project dates back to 2013. In December that year Black created an Instagram account specifically to promote his long-term investigation of domestic poverty which began in the region where he lives, the Central Valley of California. This is one of the country’s most important agricultural areas and one of its poorest regions.
The following year Black was named TIME’s Instagram Photographer of the Year and the New Yorker published his photographs on California’s drought. In 2015 he held his first fine-art exhibition at Anastasia Photo, a gallery in New York renowned for championing photography on social issues. Then he was elected as a Nominee with the renowned agency Magnum Photos (he’s now a member) and awarded the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography. In 2016 he won the prestigious the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the first of three he has gone on to claim.
This concentrated period of activity might suggest Black is an overnight success, but he’s been photographing impoverished communities for more than 20 years. It is only in the past decade, largely due to the visibility of the Geography of Poverty first on Instagram, and later in the media including as a four-part, seven-chapter interactive multimedia series on MSNBC, that Black has emerged from relative obscurity.
In 2015 he set off on his first trans-USA trip to expand his documentation. Not once in his epic journey across 46 states did Black cross over “the poverty line,” a fact in itself that is astounding. From 2015 to 2020, Black travelled from one town to another clocking up more than 100,000 miles. The towns he visited were “places with a poverty rate of 20 percent or more,” a statistic the US Census labels as “concentrated poverty.”
Black’s ability to document the inequities experienced in other towns was enabled by his intimate knowledge of the communities in the Central Valley and the problems the residents face. “In many instances, every place I am photographing, I am photographing home,” he told me back in 2017 when I interviewed him for my PhD.
His deep knowledge of the subject matter allows these photographs to move beyond geographic boundaries, to talk to the deeper political and cultural implications of being poor in America. Black says, “poverty is not really an economic question, it is a question of power…which communities get their needs met and which communities don’t…the totems of social power – is your street paved…do the streetlights work…are four out of five businesses on a certain block shuttered and closed…what is the effect on people’s sense of self, on a community’s sense of self?”
As Ruth Lister writes in her seminal work Poverty, society’s “understanding of poverty can be enlarged when it is conceptualized in terms of diminished human rights and citizenship, lack of voice and powerlessness.” These are tropes that are present in Black’s photography, the agony, exhaustion and lack of opportunity depicted in these quiet, yet defiant images that seep into consciousness. This is America. It is a vision that does not compute with how the country promotes itself. As Black observes in his pictures of despair, hardship and decay, the American Dream is a nonsense. For many, opportunity, freedom and democracy are meaningless words.
Black’s work deals with themes that were also present in the pictures of the Great Depression. Black acknowledges this connection, likening what is happening today to migrant farmworkers with the experience of those in the Dust Bowl era. Black says his hope in capturing “the lived experience of people, not poverty in an objectified sense,” is to counter the narrative of the enduring fantasy of the American dream, hence the title of the book.
And so, to the physical book itself. Encased in a black hardcover with the title embossed in black, the book features four chapters: South and West; South and East; North and East; and North and West. Black’s notebook entries appear throughout providing insights into the photographer’s headspace and also sharing stories of some of the folks he met along the way. The reproduction of images is exceptional, and the beautiful off-white textured paper is heavy and crisp. The design, which intersperses Black’s jottings throughout the chapters, positions the photographs against torn images, graphics and graffiti. This combination of visual provocations is both engaging and accessible.
The only clear explanation of what the book is about is found on the back cover in a small paragraph and this is, for me, the only disappointing aspect. A little more context, perhaps in the form of an interview with Black at the front, would elevate the monograph. As it stands, the book requires an investment from the individual to read, spend time and comprehend what they are seeing. As we know in the digital age, time spent reading is on a downhill slide and critical thought is in short supply. Also, poverty is not a sexy topic, which may be why the title is American Geography not American Poverty. Certainly the quality of the book and the fascination the images prompt at first glance may get punters over the line, but often these books are snapped up by people who are already aware.
Nevertheless, it’s an important book that reveals the staggering breadth of inequity in America, and the communities where life is about surviving one day to the next. Here the great American dream is no more than a myth.
Published by Thames & Hudson, January 2022
160pp 97 images