Matt Black’s Photos Capture ‘American Geography’ Left Behind

MWhen we can see clearly, moments are created. Sometimes it’s the moment our eyes fall upon a photograph.

People living abroad had to struggle with August 2005’s images of America. New Orleans was flooded by Hurricane Katrina, but it wasn’t the flooding that shocked the world. It was the inundated poverty. It was shocking to them that Americans could live like this.

Imagine if our country isn’t as well-known and loved by Danes? Anyone who’s ever been ambushed by a mirror understands the role of self-delusion. Our preferred view of ourselves is from certain angles. This allows the eye to adjust from shock and gives the mind a chance to regroup. It’s not that we do not recognize unguarded reality. It’s just that we prefer to not see it.

Photographer Matt Black believes something like that has been going on inside the U.S. Americans cherish the notion of their country as the land of opportunity, a place where anyone can “pick yourself up by the bootstraps, all those sorts of things,” Black says. He absorbed them along with everyone else growing up in California’s Central Valley. But taking pictures for a local newspaper meant recording a reality that challenged “these mythologies that this country is built on.”

He wondered: “How many other places like this are there in America? This was a base question that gnawed at me over many years. Just go and see. Go see from this kind of ground level perspective what the country actually looks like.”

So he did. Black began his journey in 2014 and spent six years traversing the Lower 48. He was once a Greyhound driver, but he drove four times with a van. Income determined where he traveled. “Concentrated poverty, it takes different forms,” Black says. “The threshold of 20 percent is a key one.”

To plan his route, he sat down with a map and the U.S. Census “and just started making dots.” The idea was to see if he could traverse the nation and return home without climbing above the poverty line. He found that he could, by allowing just two hours’ driving time between dots. “Which blew my mind, honestly,” Black recalls. “It felt like a discovery. It’s something I’d never seen done before, or thought of before, so even before I started traveling I felt like something really significant had been revealed.”


It is possible to have an extremely poor economy. American Geography, published by Thames & Hudson: From 46 states and 100,000 miles, 77 images, each in the high-contrast black and white he learned as a newspaper photographer in the glare of inland California.

While the book is about people Black writes a lot about emptiness. This is in part due to the fact that rural America has been lost. Desolation, however, isn’t a place that is crowded. This volume contains four chapters. They are South and West and South East, South, East, North, North, and West. The volume concludes with three to four pages of his entries, which are as sparse and unassuming as the photos.

Monday, November 5, 2018,
Farmington, NM
At dinner time, at Chef Bernie’s Cafeteria Restaurant, two girls go from booth to booth, selling holiday wreaths. The metallic wreaths, which are shiny and metallic, add an electric touch of color to the otherwise dull cafeteria. “Would you like to be interested,” the younger girl, about six, asks as she moves from table to table.

The artist has created art out of flattened items: plastic forks. cigarette packets. cardboard signs. Lotto cards. All of them are textured by asphalt and take on an incantatory nature as they move past the website. It is an amazing site. It includes GPS maps tracking Black’s movements on foot through, for example, Comstock, Texas, and his Greyhound luggage tag to Calexico. There are maps made up of place names, of Google drop pins, of the lines between stops – the allurements of cartography, and the nominal romance of the road, deployed this time in the service not of escape but of capture.

“So you understand: basically for 20-plus years as a photographer I focused on the Central Valley of California, the place that I’m from,” Black explains. John Steinbeck, an author, also took up a newspaper assignment in the Central Valley in 1936 to report on migrants living in camps in the Midwest. His article was accompanied by Dorothea Lange’s photograph “Migrant Mother” and inspired Grapes of WrathIt is. Black saw that the focus of one area allowed others to forget the link between their lives or their food and the poverty he was showing them half a century later. He imagined hearing: “Well, no, it’s some place some place in the middle of California that we’ve never heard of before.”

“So to escape that prejudice,” Black says, “I had to kind of escape geography—make the geography invisible by basically going everywhere.”

A different way to say it is: Grapes of WrathAll across the United States. “Each picture really is a picture of where I come from. Each picture is a picture of home.”

The Great Depression could be considered a separate event and contained in brackets [1929-1940]Black’s documenting of a trend is the result of a decline over five years, described in policy papers and think tank language as globalization. You are In American GeographyIn this video, we meet an Arizona young man who has sold his blood in order to purchase water.

“We’ve bought into the ideology of these presumptions—Land of Opportunity—that are completely not true, but are still so widely accepted,” Black says. “It all comes from that. It all comes from the idea of poverty in America being seen as a personal failure, rather than as a systemic issue.”

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