JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 black and white photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against grey walls (and in the street facing windows) in the single room gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2014 and 2015. The prints are shown in three sizes: 24×24 (in editions of 10), 36×36 (in editions of 10), and 44×44 (in editions of 5). A video monitor shows additional images in rotation. And a newspaper has been printed to accompany the body of work. Black was selected as Instagram Photographer of the Year (2014) by Time (here), won the 2015 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography (here), and was recently selected as a Magnum Photos nominee member (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Part of the reason that this review of Matt Black’s new body of work The Geography of Poverty comes so late in the cycle (the show closes this weekend) is that the photographs create a push and pull that I’ve been having trouble reconciling. Over the past two years, Black has covered the United States, making images of marginalized and overlooked communities across the nation, posting his images on Instagram, linking them to maps, and piecing together the larger story of 21st century poverty in America. It is both an ambitious and important project, smartly documenting the intertwined strands of recent economic and social history.
And yet, as strong as his many of his pictures are, the particular photographs in this edit have been stylistically tuned with an eye for maximum contrast, so much so that their subtle exaggerations feel a bit manipulative. The way Black has presented his images (especially when printed large) made me step back from being swept up by their dark realities and emotions and put up my guard, creating a back and forth argument that left me unsettled.
Just as the FSA photographers (Evans, Lange, Rothstein and others) chronicled the struggles and deprivations of Dust Bowl farmers and Depression-era migrants, Black’s photographs follow the poverty-stricken pathways of similar people almost a century later, starting from his home in the Central Valley of California. Aside from a group of intimately dark headshots, Black’s subjects tend to been seen in the context of their surroundings, sitting in a flea market van, idling outside a corner store, leaning a despairing forehead against a telephone pole, or made invisible by the darkness of a farmworker’s camp. The best of these images have a pared down symbolism that reduces the complexity of the poverty problem to a simple striking visual – getting a depressing trickle of water from a barrel amid the dusty parched fields, a weathered and wrinkled man’s hand lain like a gripping claw atop a similarly weathered and wrinkled wooden fence post, and the far off view of the border with a man caught in midair jumping the fence. Each one is poignant and hard hitting in its own way, touching on climate change, race, immigration, and old fashioned back breaking work as component parts of the poverty equation.
Black’s landscapes twist further toward an almost post-apocalyptic vision of these depressed regions of the country. Burning tires used as crop dust markers belch towers of black smoke into the air. A shuttered train terminal in Buffalo stands alone among solitary dead trees and malevolent crows. The refineries of Cancer Alley in Louisiana chug along oblivious to the fact that the sun has been blotted out, a dark ominous gloom enveloping both land and sky. And Black’s interest in surreal found details further punctuates the mood – the skull of an unidentified migrant, the rotting head of dead bull hung to dry, a Hitchcockian assemblage of birds on the electric wires, a smashed off kilter mailbox, and the scary shadow of a Moriyama-like feral dog all feel wearily despondent in their own ways. Even the limp American flag at a flea market has a sad Charlie Brown Christmas tree echo, the American dream not flapping so brightly in these poverty-stricken communities.
It is certainly appropriate for Black to push these images to the point where they ask hard questions about the human morality of poverty, and that concerned humanism is undeniably admirable. Where Black starts to lose me is with what I see as some heavy handed amplification of the look and feel of his photographs. While Black has previously used dark chiaroscuro as part of his rich visual vocabulary, he extends that lushness further in this project, moving toward the high contrast aesthetic of Sebastião Salgado’s recent work. For many, such a characterization would likely be a complement, given Salgado’s broad following. But the adoption of that melodrama detracts from the message inherent in the well-crafted photographs; it actively pushes Black to the front, instead of the injustices and tragedies he is showing us. The harsh reality of his stories are too important and worthwhile to make fussier with extra aestheticism.
The challenge here is that soul-crushing poverty shouldn’t be grandiose, and a few too many of Black’s images wander into that territory because of their extra gritty darkness. In the end, there are many moments of compositional brilliance to be found here, and the intent of the project is unquestionably thoughtful and incisive. I just wish that he would turn the volume down a notch or two, toward the understatement of Robert Adams rather than the overstatement of Salgado, so we could better hear the nuances in his pictures.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The 24×24 prints are $2000 each, the 36×36 prints are $3000 each, and the 44×44 prints are $4500 each. Black’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.