American Geography

I have just finished an amazing book by photographer Matt Black. This beautiful tome is called American Geography in which he documents the 100,000 miles and 46 American states that he has travelled through since 2015. The book looks at the conditions of poverty, powerlessness and prejudice that are inflicted on the poorer people of America.

Black is a Magnum photographer and the project began as he started to examine the poverty in his own area in California’s rural Central Valley, which has been called the “other California”.  In 2015 he moved further out from his own town and visited places that were designated “poverty areas” – towns and districts that have poverty rates of above 20% as defined in the US census. Black found that these areas are never more than two hours drive apart and are found throughout the country but are always cut-off from the opportunities that exist in other parts of the USA.

This amazing collection of photographs that are compelling, totally riveting and beautifully taken are the latest in a genre of documentary photography that can trace its lineage to the FSA (Farm Security Administration) photographers of the 1930s and 1940s with luminaries such as Evans and Lange.

American Geography is full of Black’s brilliant black and white photographs mostly in the square format but broken up with several superb panoramic images and double-page photographs of the ephemera he saw on his travels such as cutlery, old cigarette packets and twisted wire. These sometimes jarring and incisive images are accompanied by a travelogue written by Black and taken from his travel notebook written as he toured the country. These diary entries are a combination of conversations and observations from cafés, city buses, diners, timetables, daily news reports and historical facts all of which add to the vivid and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of his experiences.

It is difficult to single out images as particular favourites as the project is meant to work as a whole but Blythe, California on page  35 is a particular favourite. It depicts an old man, presumably homeless, getting some respite from the sun by sitting on the edge of a long shadow in the centre of the frame. He looks tired and unkempt. Behind him is the small town of Blythe with flat roof houses and the cross of the church rising above the skyline.

To me, the life this man is living is on the border of light and darkness. At this time the darkness is giving him the comfort he wants from the sun and this could be a metaphor for his life. It should be easy to cross into the light but it will mean effort and he is so tired. Behind him stands the church. Something that should be helping him but is out of his sight and reach. He may have even turned his back on it.

There are many, many images like this in American Geography. If you buy one photographic book at the moment, make sure it is this one

There are extensive files and images on Black’s website in a section called Reading American Geography. It is put together to complement the book and is a piece of art itself.


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