Photographer Matt Black has spent three decades documenting farmworkers and their families living below the poverty line in the agricultural Central Valley, drawing attention to the extreme economic inequality in California’s heartland.
Yet when Black, a member of the renowned photo agency Magnum and one of the most respected social documentarians of his generation, hears the word “marginalized” being used to describe people and places he knows well, he recoils.
“I know the feeling, that sense of shame, of being told from the outside that where you come from doesn’t matter,” Black says.
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
The Central Valley—a broad swath of fertile land smoothed between the Coast Ranges to the west and the Sierra Nevada to the east—has been a source of enduring pride and an artistic anchor for lifelong resident Black. Earlier in his career, however, he had to fight to have his photographs taken seriously and recognized for their universality, not just their emotional acuity. Eventually, his deeply reported photo projects on poverty, drought, labor, and the migration crisis appeared in such publications as the New Yorker (“The Dry Land,” 2014; “The Monster in the Mountains,” 2015), Time (“States of Vulnerability,” 2018), and the California Sunday Magazine (“Papá, I Don’t Think You Should Go to Work Today,” 2018).
“Occasionally, with my work in the Central Valley, I get the feeling that people can dismiss it by saying that it’s happening in some weird place in the middle of nowhere in California, that it’s an outlier,” he told Time in 2015. “But I know very well that the Central Valley is not an outlier. You can find similar communities and similar circumstances throughout the country.”
That’s exactly what Black has done in American Geography, his latest project and by far his most ambitious to date.
AMERICA BY BUS
Black’s American Geography is a sweeping and profoundly humane photo essay that he began shooting in 2014 and worked on until 2020, when he completed a five-year journey across the United States. He traveled “coast to coast and back, without ever basically crossing the poverty line,” he says. He covered more than 100,000 miles, often by bus, and photographed cities and towns in 46 states and Puerto Rico, all of which were designated by the U.S. Census Bureau as having poverty rates above 20 percent.
More than 100 photos from the American Geography series will be published by Thames & Hudson in October in Black’s first monograph. A traveling exhibition of the series will arrive in the United States later this year following openings in Hamburg and Munich, Germany.
The portraits and atmospheric black-and-white studies are arresting in their stark simplicity. Black captures small, quiet, often lonely moments in the lives of the poorest among us: A sun-weathered arm resting on an Allensworth, California, fence post. Predawn bus passengers in Fresno heading to the fields. A lone pedestrian crossing a deserted street. A man on his bicycle in the midday heat.
Black’s mission was to “connect the dots,” he explains, between harsh circumstances of life in the part of the world he knows best and the stubborn reality that multigenerational poverty, compounded by the imperatives of migration and heightened inequality, is epidemic and increasingly intractable, not only in California—America’s wealthiest state—but everywhere.
“Poverty and poor communities are always kind of thought of in America as the exception, not the rule,” he tells me during a lengthy Zoom conversation, from his spartan studio in the Sierra foothills town of Lemon Cove, population 232. “What if, in fact, it’s the rule and not the exception when you look at it on the ground? Poverty exists everywhere. There are large swaths of the country where opportunity does not exist.”
With a wood-burning stove and black-and-white prints strung up behind him, Black bristles at the idea of marginalization not because he doesn’t appreciate how thwarted and cut off—from a decent living wage, from a viable shot at the American dream—the vast majority of California’s half a million agricultural laborers, including many in his own community, feel. Rather, he takes issue with the signifier because it’s so often used by people whose relative prosperity insulates them from firsthand knowledge of hardship.
His work reminds us that defining margins is ultimately a question of perspective, something a photographer is especially attuned to recognize. Census data doesn’t lie, but politicians do: Black knows that you can’t call something like economic precarity a fringe issue when a quarter of your citizens are suffering. In his native Tulare County, which far exceeds Florida as the country’s premier citrus producer and whose annual crops are valued at more than $1.5 billion, the poverty rate is currently over 23 percent. In other words, people on the margins go unnoticed because, quite simply, no one wants to notice them—so they remain outside the frame.
CENTRAL VALLEY HOME
Black lives and works far removed from the galleries and editors who swoon over his images. He and his English professor wife and collaborator, Melissa, and their two teenagers live in the small town of Exeter, just 15 minutes from where he grew up, on the agricultural outskirts of Visalia. His father was a car mechanic turned irrigation engineer. Black caught the photo bug in high school (“It was the only thing I enjoyed about being in school,” he says). As a teenage lab tech and eventually photographer with his hometown afternoon newspaper, the Tulare Advance Register, he spent many evenings processing and printing in the paper’s darkroom, losing track of the hours until past midnight.
“Luckily, my parents were obliging,” he recalls. “Photography just completely took over my life. I was obsessed with the work, but the idea was, this is something that’s going to get me the hell out of here, potentially to a big city, to magazine work. Photography was going to take me all over the place. But the further I got into it, the less appealing that idea became of being some kind of globe-trotting photographer. It turned me off.”
Black went to San Francisco State on a photojournalism scholarship, but “it only took me about three months to realize, No way,” he says. “I started questioning the whole thing.”
Assignments imposed on him by professors and editors rang false. “It just felt weird and fake to be photographing subjects I had no connection to. I didn’t want to illustrate other people’s ideas; I wanted to illustrate my ideas. That’s the whole thing that makes this [endeavor] worthwhile. I thought, If I can’t do this on my own terms, then I don’t want to do it.”
He remembers it dawning on him that he identified as an author, not just a hired shooter. “And then it’s like, OK, if you’re an author, what story do you have to tell?”
That story was, and remains, tied to geography. “In my mid-20s is when I realized, for me to do my work, it had to be focused here, on what I knew best,” says Black, now 51. “And I just kind of walled everything else off.” He and Melissa—they had met in high school, lived together in San Francisco while he studied Latin American and U.S. labor history, were married—returned to the Central Valley in 1998, three years after his graduation.
Black explains that the seed of the idea for American Geography was planted in 2014, when his geotagged Geography of Poverty project of Central Valley photographs, his first foray into social media, went viral on Instagram. (Today, he has 232,000 followers on the platform.)
“The roots of it were incredibly simple,” he recalls. “When I first opened up Instagram, the thing that stood out to me right away was the map, that you can geotag your pictures and actually build a map of where you go and when. But people still weren’t making the connection that the Central Valley wasn’t some distant, obscure thing. The question became, How do I make a bigger statement that there are bigger things we need to be thinking about, that need to be in the conversation?”
Black is a tall, bearded man of restraint and innate composure who chooses his words carefully, which befits someone whose primary language is visual. He looks pensive and pained when I ask him to describe his realization back in 2015 that high-poverty areas are so ubiquitous that they’re never more than a two hours’ drive apart.
“Mind-blowing,” he says.
A WAR ON POVERTY
“The people Matt photographs are on the margins, but what he’s trying to say is, they’re really not,” says Robert Koch, founder of San Francisco’s Robert Koch Gallery, which started representing Black this year. “It’s just easy to think they are if you live in the Bay Area or on the coasts.”
Koch compares Black’s work to that of the legendary Czech-French photographer Josef Koudelka. “His aesthetic is gritty and personally emotive more than just documentary. While Matt isn’t an activist—he’s not lobbying or overtly political—he’s trying to stimulate people’s understanding. He wants to stir empathy. He wants people to accept that [the poor] are a part of society and not something that you can just choose to ignore because they’re not like you.”
Black found out he’d been nominated to join the Magnum Photos agency in 2015, during his cross-country travels, on the road in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. “It was a thrill. To become a part of that history is amazing. It lends a certain legitimacy,” he says of joining the world-famous lineage of socially conscious photographers.
In 2019, he became a full member of Magnum, one of only 44 photographers on the agency’s global roster today. “The wonderful thing about Magnum is, it truly is international, which means the pictures that I do here, now, can connect with this international network, and that’s been amazing, particularly for someone like me from this small town,” he says. “I was struggling for years to get my work published, to tell these stories I thought, and still think, are so important.”
“Matt’s work and his sustained dedication to one subject, one story, over so many years is absolutely in line with Magnum’s founders [Henri] Cartier-Bresson and [Robert] Capa,” says Pauline Vermare, Magnum Photos’ cultural director. “Their need for a cooperative agency was born during the Spanish Civil War and the trauma of the Second World War, and the need to bear witness. For Matt, extreme poverty in the U.S. is a war in itself. It’s almost like a religious vocation for him, this soulful, missionary-like sense of purpose.”
In a world bombarded and oversaturated with digital images, Vermare sees Black as “one of the very few today who is still convinced that photography will inspire change.”
“The human connection to a photograph is immediate,” says Black. “It’s almost like a chemical. It works on this molecular level.”
Given his subject matter—agriculture, displacement, drought—Black’s high-contrast black-and-white reportage is reminiscent of Walker Evans’s and Dorothea Lange’s Farm Security Administration photos, which put human faces on the tragedy of the Great Depression. “Lange’s Migrant Mother is a photo that deeply inspired and influenced Matt, and so has Steinbeck,” Vermare says, calling Black’s work “extremely literary.” She adds, “As a man who’s so often on the road, Matt’s always reading and thinking—and of course, like Steinbeck, he’s telling a story meant to raise awareness.”
The American Geography monograph includes excerpts from journal entries Black wrote while traveling, often alone, with a backpack holding his minimal supplies. “One pair of pants, one long-sleeve shirt…Panasonic camera, [Hasselblad] XPan camera, six lenses, 30 rolls of film,” reads his first entry, dated January 5, 2016, in Fresno, California, a year into the project.
Black began his journey on a late-night bus from Fresno to Calexico: 438 miles, 10 hours. From Calexico, he boarded a transcontinental bus to Bangor, Maine: 3,317 miles one-way.
“Leaving home,” he writes. “I once told myself that all I needed to understand was my corner of the world, but I’ve been crisscrossing the country for a year now, and all I want to do is see more.”
Eventually, Black decided to rename his Instagram project American Geography because, as he told Fred Ritchin, dean emeritus of the International Center of Photography, “what I was doing was not a portrait of marginalized America, but a portrait of America itself.”
Black says he has trouble recalling the exact circumstances of every photo he’s taken, the confidence he had “in that 1/125th of a second.” But, he says, “I have confidence in the process.” He cares about exploring not only the physical contours of poverty but also the “psychology of powerlessness.”
Consider the Central Valley. It’s a land of supposed plenty, producing a quarter of this nation’s food supply. Yet little has improved in the region in terms of labor conditions or social mobility for decades. Black photographed raisin pickers who, at the time, earned 21 cents a bucket in the hot summer months. In 2021, a New Deal loophole still exempts fieldworkers from child-labor protections. It’s common to see families living without electricity or hot running water.
“People still accept these outdated ‘bootstrap’ mythologies,” Black says, “and these myths we tell ourselves are accepted not just by the winners in a scenario but also by those who are not winning. If I’m poor in the richest country in the world, it must be my problem.”
Individuals struggling against systemic forces much greater than themselves are everywhere in American Geography. Black photographed a family in Farmington, New Mexico, who were stranded on the sidewalk at dusk after their car had been repossessed. In Del Rio, Texas, he documented people lining up on Main Street on Thanksgiving Day to sell plasma.
“Basically, every conversation I’ve had over the course of five years, when I’m meeting people and introducing myself, talking about what I’m doing, it always begins with the fact of where I’m coming from and the connections I see in other parts of the country,” he explains. “Then I might say, ‘Isn’t this amazing? What I’m seeing here is very similar to what I saw there. I’m on a process of discovery.’ ”•