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Photography The other humiliation of America

It is not Matt Black’s individual, infinitely sad images that make up the overall picture – it is how widespread their themes of desperation are right across the country’s geography, writes JOHN GREEN

Matt Black: American Geography
Magnum Gallery and online 63 London


AMERICAN GEOGRAPHY explores themes of inequality against the backdrop of the American Dream. The exhibition will coincide with the launch of Black’s eponymous book by Thames & Hudson.
For those who wish to know and who are willing to dig beneath the mounds of Hollywood tinsel, the TV soap operas and the US’s own propaganda, it is no secret that the richest country on Earth has not only the greatest gulf between rich and poor but also huge numbers of very poor people, left behind by the American dream.

Even for those reasonably well off, falling into the poverty sink hole is always only a few steps away. Black documents that world the US elite wishes to hide from its own people and the rest of the world.
In 2013, he began photographing isolated communities in California’s Central Valley, the rural, agricultural area where he lives. In 2015, he expanded the project to encompass the United States as a whole and completed his first cross-country trip, a three-and-a-half-month journey visiting dozens of communities across 28 states.

Since then, he has completed four additional trips, travelling over 100,000 miles and making work across 46 states. He discovered that he could cross the country without ever emerging above the poverty line.

His photographs are in stark black and white, and have an almost lino- or woodcut feel to them. Their strong graphic quality – the contrasts between black shadows and harsh sunlight – endow his images with a sharp edge supremely appropriate for his subject.

He captures simple moments from the daily life of Californian farm hands, ranchers at work, indigenous first nation people on horseback, riding across a bleak, snow-blanketed landscape, to those living in urban squalor.

When Black began work on this project its working title was The Geography of Poverty, but he changed it to American Geography because he felt that: “what I was doing was not a portrait of marginalised America, but a portrait of America itself, and the point that needed to be made was how much this is a part of American life, not something on its edges.”

Black, rejects the accusation that he is dealing only with the marginalised: “What I’m getting at is at the centre of the American experience. And people tend to focus on the bright and shiny parts of the country, but not the parts that are intimately connected to that prosperity but don’t share in it. 

“For instance, where I live in the Central Valley, this area produces a quarter of the food in the United States but enjoys very little of the benefit. It’s still one of the poorest areas of the country,” he says.

Nor does he see much of that social mobility, praised so much as demonstrating the superiority of the American way of life. The country has been characterised so often as one which would pick you up by your bootstraps, and help you get on, but Black says he’s seeing the opposite of that: “that your future is determined largely by where you are born.”

His work, he says: “is exploring the hierarchies of power, who gets what and when and where, and who gets to say what America is.”

Visiting communities with a poverty rate above 20 per cent, each only two hours or less away from each other, he has created an alternative map of the US, exposing its deep and prevalent inequalities. What began as a story of individual, isolated communities grew into a portrait of an increasingly divided and unequal America, created during a time of rising disparity and disunity.
Southern farm towns, the Texan border with Mexico, the post-industrial towns of the Midwest are just some of the regions depicted in this ambitious body of work. Through striking black and white images, significant socio-political issues are elevated to a national conversation, challenging viewers to ask what America’s future might be.
“These hierarchies of power are what the work is exploring, who gets what and when and where, and who gets to say what America is,” Black says, “that’s what I’m talking about: America from the ground level is very different. These places feed the raw materials for that American story to unfold elsewhere. There’s a built-in sense of disempowerment that goes with that. Anyone who’s from a place like this knows the feeling very well. I tried to harness and internalise that feeling as much as possible, the tragedy and disillusionment that goes along with that. I used that to inform the pictures.”
Magnum features a selection of these images including the spectacular panoramic street landscape Columbus, North Dakota, 2017, imbued with a sense of nostalgia and loneliness; and the iconic Alturas, California, from 2016, depicting the mysterious silhouette of a cowboy, the epitome of the American West.

Further highlights of the exhibition include Burning tyres, Corcoran, California, 2014 showing the balance between desertic nature and industrial smoke and stressing the tension between the natural world and human influence.

Matt Black: American Geography is available from bookshops and online at £26.99. The exhibition continues until December 17 2021 at Magnum Gallery, London and online 63.

Free but booking required: contact to book an appointment.


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