At Paris Photo 2016, I was fortunate to see quite a large exhibition of the work of Matt Black. I have come across Black’s work in the past via websites and various publications, but this was the first time I’d seen his work in an exhibition context.
According to Wikipedia and the bio on his website, Matt Black was born in 1970 in Santa Clara, California. His work has explored the connections between migration, poverty, agriculture, and the environment in his native rural California and in southern Mexico.
He become a Magnum nominee in 2015 and according to the Magnum site “he has photographed over one hundred communities across 44 U.S. states for his project The Geography of Poverty. Other recent works include The Dry Land, about the impact of drought on California’s agricultural communities, and The Monster in the Mountains, about the disappearance of 43 students in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Both of these projects, accompanied by short films, were published by The New Yorker.”
One of the first things that hit me was the graphic nature of his imagery. Printed large, in high-contrast black and white, but with a careful rendition of greyscale, his work is quite imposing and eye-catching.
His photos have a strong sense of narrative and the story they tell isn’t pretty. It’s of poverty, hardship and people struggling to survive. It’s one thing for us to see such images of “developing countries”, but quite another when the images come from the heartland of the American dream such as California. The point is clear: all is not well in the land of the free.
Some of his photos evokes the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers in the 1930s and 40s, but without the editing hand of Roy Stryker. The strong sense is that not much has changed in the intervening years and maybe things have even become worse.
In an interview with Time Magazine, Black said that “the Central Valley is this kind of vast unknown zone. These towns, these communities are right in the heart of the richest state in the richest country in the world. It’s halfway between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and yet, you still have conditions like these,” where poor communities are left with bad roads, dirty water, crummy schools and polluted air.
All of the photos are in black and white, some using a slight HDR effect to emphasise texture. The effect is of timelessness and of course, also a link back to the FSA series. The presentation is gritty, which suits the stories both within individual frames and across the multiple portfolios.
Most of the photos have captions which typically reveal statistics about the number of inhabitants and the level of poverty. The striking thing when looking at these captions is their geographical spread – certainly within Mexico, but also across the continental United States from east to west via the central states. The shocking levels of poverty (30% and upwards) tells a grim story of something badly wrong. Well worth seeing.