Review by Melanie Chapman •
American Geography, the new Thames and Hudson book by photographer Matt Black, is like the artist himself, both handsome and intimidating. Even the cover, imageless with stark lettering on a surface that is indeed matte black, does not invite the viewer in. Nor does it reassure one that this is a collection of work that will be easily digested or perhaps even “enjoyed”. However, it is work that is stunning in its graphic mastery and reveals important truths about the topic of poverty, something which the United States seems more inclined to ignore.
For those fortunate to be familiar with Black’s photography on the ravages of poverty in his home region of Central California, this monograph has been eagerly awaited. The impetus for this sober body of work was to seek out towns that are similar to the Central Valley socioeconomically, and the consistencies Black found are neither trivial nor dishonest.
Traveling on public transportation offered Black a window seat to parts of the country that rarely show up in magazines or on television; these are the towns that a post industrialized America has seemingly abandoned. Empty main streets, lone figures receding from trash strewn foregrounds, fields gone dry, orchards cut down, neighborhoods that resemble bombed out war relics.
What Black found as he crisscrossed this “great land of ours” is beautifully represented in 97 black and white images with tones so dark they threaten to pull you in and refuse to release you, much the way poverty can consume a person’s every waking hour and ultimately their dreams and spirits. This body of work seems timeless and is not uplifting, but neither is reality for much of America in the twenty-first century. Even if the images seem heavy or depressing, we should not look away from Black’s work. His talent is not only as a gifted visual artist, but also his ability to make us want to see these places now devoid of their former vitality, and to compel us towards a greater understanding of what it is to live below the poverty line.
The majority of the people in Black’s photographs do not face or otherwise acknowledge his camera. They appear too tired, hungry, or busy getting where they need to go, and perhaps in our selfie-saturated glossy fairytale of a great America the disconcerting reality that Black’s compassionate yet sober eye reveals may be too uncomfortable for the casual viewer. Yet the images contained within American Geography and the subtle way these images are edited commands our attention and tells a story that demands to be seen.
These are not the color-saturated road trip observations of early Stephen Shore or William Eggleston. Rather Black’s work evokes that of Dorothea Lange, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Walker Evans, and yes, Robert Frank, whose own travels across the United States resulted in a masterful comment on the dissonance of what one sees when peering behind the sheen of abundance and harmony. American Geography belongs in a serious collection alongside the work of such masters.
Black kept notes throughout his travels and their inclusion is a welcome addition in this book. The reader is thus able to feel as if they too are road-weary, hungry, and tired. We experience the intimate details that some viewers may find lacking in Black’s images. Another advantage of viewing this body of work in book form are the photographic illustrations of discarded items such as cigarette packs and a multitude of handwritten signs displaying varied yet consistent ways of trying to make it through another day.
Black has a gift for seeing patterns, be they in the landscape itself, in the skies above, or in the more pernicious ways in which different towns and the lives of their inhabitants all start to seem interchangeable. A woman alone in Kentucky placed opposite that of a man’s silhouette in South Carolina makes perfect sense not only visually, but in context as well. For so many of those who live below the poverty line in this country, the similarities outweigh any geographical differences. Through Matt Black’s images, we walk in their boots, we feel parched on their barren land, we wish there was more money for the heating bill, we too sense that the power lines have been cut and the roads will always lead nowhere.
This book was selected as one of the Interesting Artist and Photographic Books for 2021 by the staff of PhotoBook Journal.
Melanie Chapman is a Southern California photographer and a Contributing Editor
AMERICAN GEOGRAPHY: A Reckoning with a Dream, Matt Black
Photography and text: Matt Black, born Santa Maria, CA and resides in Lemon Cove, CA
Published by Thames and Hudson, London, Copyright 2021
Hardcover, stitched binding, 168 pages, 97 b&w illustrations, Printed and bound Editoriale Bortolazzi-Stei srl., Italy
Book Design: Yolanda Cuomo
Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).
The photographs are beautiful and I’m somewhat in awe of Black’s work and dedication to the project. But I can’t help but feel the book is over designed. The cigarette packs, etc., just seem to be a design feature without adding anything to the photographs. Still, a lovely book.