At the age of 17, photographer Matt Black got a job working in the darkroom of a local newspaper in the Central Valley of California. It was a small newspaper, and had a simple black and white darkroom. But Black fell in love with the craft. “Looking back now, I’m very glad that this was my entryway into photography. That it has always been about communication – and had a clear social role.” That lesson has not been forgotten.
After school, Black returned to the Central Valley in order to make it the focus of his photography work. As the photographer says, the area itself is not like the California that most people think of when they think of the state. “People have a certain idea of what California is, and this place – rural and poor – is the opposite. So that kind of contradiction and that sense of not belonging became a focus in my work, trying to highlight the distance between this place and the rest of the state.”
In 2013 and 2014 Black started photographing the area with a new perspective: he began looking at the idea of photographically mapping poor communities in the Central Valley. And through this approach, and the subsequent work, the idea behind what would become American Geography, his latest book published by Thames & Hudson, was born.
“There came a time when it was like, ‘Okay, just how many other places like the Central Valley are there in America?’ This was the core idea animating the project – to go find how many other places are left out of the ‘American Dream.’”
As that idea fermented in 2013 and 2014, Black planned what he thought would be a single cross-country trip to further the project on poverty. But it soon became apparent that a single trip would not do.
“From there, in 2015, the idea was to do one cross-country trip. But after that first trip, I became obsessed with the idea of trying to go everywhere, basically. I did one cross-country trip per year until 2020.”
There was no other impetus to start traversing the country in 2015 other than that is when Matt Black was ready to begin. But the timing was auspicious for Black looking back at what has happened in America since 2015. “The timing is more interesting in retrospect because that was before things started to go crazy in America. The fact that the project brackets this time of great tumult in American politics is another element of the experience, but it was not intentional.”
Many photographers have taken cross-country trips in order to look at and photograph America. And many of them are seen as to have been relatively unplanned adventures: going wherever the road took them as they photographed what they saw along the way. But Black was much more meticulous in his planning and routes. This would be no series of willy-nilly road trips.
As Black planned out his first trip across the country, he was looking to go to places that had been overlooked. He wanted to explore how poverty affected not just the economics of a place, but the social fabric of the people who lived in those areas. So he began looking for places that had a 20% poverty rate in order to create a map that he could follow as he traveled. But as he researched those places that fit the criteria, and plotted them on his map, he was shocked by what he found: it would be possible to cross the country without ever crossing above the poverty line.
“I became fascinated with this idea called ‘concentrated poverty,’ which is a sociological term that looks at poverty’s effect on a community most broadly, beyond just economics, how it impacts the social fabric of a place. One of the thresholds for that is when a town has a poverty rate of above 20%, so I began researching those towns and putting them together in a continuous route. I completed the first map in the spring of 2015, and it was a revelation that this sort of map was even possible.”
While he traveled by car for the first trip, Black chose to travel by bus from Calexico, California to Bangor, Maine, and back on his second trip. This was another way in which he could immerse himself in the world he was looking to photograph.
As Black racked up the miles traversing the country photographing, he also kept copious journals, some of whose entries are interspersed with the photographs in the book. There are also composite images of the detritus that one finds along the road: crushed cigarette packs, hitch-hikers signs, disposable eating utensils, and clothes hangers. Combined with the photographs they hammer home how extreme poverty is found everywhere in the country.
The complete book, which is broken into four sections for the South and West, South and East, North and East, and North and West, is an overwhelming chronical of poverty in America, and the lives of those living outside of the American Dream.
But Black did not stop simply with the book. He has also combined the book with the website Reading American Geography, which contains the maps he used to travel, essays about the work, more journal entries, interviews, and videos to further the project.
Taken together the book and the website show the reality of the state of poverty in America that many people don’t want to admit exists as close to their homes and lives as Black shows that it does.
“Poverty is more than just economics. It’s about a sense of belonging versus being excluded. That’s the human meaning behind it all and why it cuts so deep. There are objective ways to measure poverty, but that is also missing the point. Ultimately, it’s about belonging and fairness, and right now, America is anything but.”
And for Matt Black, American Geography is also more than just a documentation of poverty. It is his way to change how people see poverty, and hopefully more fully understand America.
“You do a project like this because you hope it moves people, and you want to change the way people see. America doesn’t understand America very well. My hope is that we can at least begin to see ourselves a little more clearly.”
By Robert E. Gerhardt
Robert Gerhardt is a New York City based photographer and freelance writer. His photographs and writings have been published nationally and internationally including in The Hong Kong Free Press, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Diplomat.
American Geography is published by Thames & Hudson and can be ordered through their website.