Let’s say you’re at a swanky New York party and someone says, hey, I want to introduce you to Time magazine’s 2014 Instagram Photographer of the Year.
What flashes through your mind?
Perhaps fine-dining images that make your tongue tingle — of lamb salad with fregola, say, or plump sea scallops in a base of wasabi coconut sauce. Maybe you think of cute dogs or spectacular sunset photos that glow so vibrantly you can practically feel the radiation. Or, figuring that in order to garner such a national honor the photographer has captured “real” news, perhaps you imagine wrenching pictures of a flood, hurricane, war or other such calamity caught by a photographer in the right place at the right time.
None of that is Matt Black.
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The Exeter photographer has doggedly pursued his own persistent, patient, stubborn brand of journalism for more than 25 years. For Black, the issues aren’t momentary. He doesn’t flit from one assignment to the next. Even as the world’s attention span has shrunk down to 140 characters, maybe even fewer, he takes the long view.
It takes him months, sometimes years, to really know a story, to create the trust that allows him to get images few other photographers can.
Or even want.
Black, who indeed did win Time’s 2014 Instagram honor, photographs Central Valley farmworkers: their sunburned faces, their modest homes, their physically demanding lives. He photographs agriculture: the expensive tractors, the abundant yields, the dramatic sweep of a once-arid land transformed into the world’s most impressive food-making machine. Too often lately he photographs drought: the cracked earth, the dust, the human misery.
And, like the pioneering photographers of the 1930s such as Dorothea Lange, known for her searing Depression-era images of the Dust Bowl, he photographs migrations. He’s been to the Miztec region in the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla more than a dozen times, and there he has chronicled our present-day version of the Dust Bowl: the migration of tens of thousands of destitute Miztec-speaking farmers drawn to the Central Valley to work in the agriculture industry.
Ever since he graduated from San Francisco State in 1994, the 44-year-old Black has stuck to a career path that many would consider noble — and others plain foolish, at least from a financial point of view.
He came back to the central San Joaquin Valley because he knew it was home to the type of photography he wanted to do. He has always worked for himself as a freelancer, free to pick and choose his own projects. Those projects inevitably have a social component. He focuses on issues of poverty, class, environment and other “big-picture” topics that are so easy, in our frenzied and compartmentalized world, to tuck out of sight.
“I regard his as the highest form of photography,” says noted photographer, journalist and historian Richard Steven Street, an Anschultz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University. “He is carrying on, extending and amplifying the work of Dorothea Lange according to his own style and approach.”
And it’s paying off.
Black had a really good 2014. The New Yorker magazine published an eight-page spread of brutally beautiful photos of California’s drought in its print edition — a rare and prestigious honor. He broke into the world of fine-art photography with a solo show last year and continued representation at the Anastasia Gallery in New York City, where some of the world’s best photojournalism and documentary photography is showcased.
“I think Matt is an incredibly gifted and soulful photographer,” says Felicia Anastasia, owner of the gallery.
That same show, titled “From Clouds to Dust,” traveled in January to the Fresno Art Museum, where it runs through April 26.
Black didn’t jump up and down with excitement when he learned about the Time magazine or New Yorker honors. That isn’t his way, says his wife, Melissa Martell Black. He’s by nature a quieter man, somewhat reticent. But he is gratified by the national attention because it means his work — and the issues it explores — is being seen by more people than ever before.
“I’ve devoted myself to these images,” Black says. “That’s the one voice I have. I’ve got a lot I want to say.”
On the road
It is a bright, fair January day, and Black, driving his gray Honda Odyssey van, has emerged from the fog onto a stretch of roadway outside Mendota. These are well-traveled byways for him.
In 2009, during California’s last big drought, he rented an apartment for three months on the edge of Mendota just to let the character and nature of the place seep into him. He built a level of familiarity and trust with the residents that could never be attained by out-of-town photographers “parachuting” into a story for a few days.
He’s immersed in many central San Joaquin Valley communities: Alpaugh, Teviston, Allensworth and others.
Black’s photos come from a certain social and political perspective, but it’s a more complex equation than you might think. He isn’t “anti-agriculture,” he says. In fact, he’s awestruck at the massive display of force that humans have used over the decades to transform this region into a breadbasket.
“We farm exactly how we behave. It’s all about mass production and efficiency. I’m not criticizing it — I appreciate it, too. But that’s what fascinates me: how farming and agriculture is such an incredible prism with which to look at society.”
He’s more likely to criticize the “hypocrites” who live in major urban centers — Los Angeles is a particular target of his — who bemoan the lives of farmworkers and the environmental impact of agriculture without changing the way they eat, shop or use water.
It’s easy to see how he bonds with people. He walks up to someone, introduces himself as a journalist, then explains why he’s there. He’s soft-spoken. He’s not shy, but he does say he “has to gin myself up” when approaching a person for the first time.
Tall and lanky, with a beard that, given a week or two, could easily slip into woodsman territory, he looks comfortable in his black Marmot jacket and droopy cargo pants, a common uniform.
“Even the way he dresses — it’s very humble,” says Leoncio Vasquez Santos, executive director of the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities, who has gotten to know the photographer because of Black’s frequent trips to the Miztec region.
At the corner of Dakota and Jameson avenues, in the midst of dusty fields, Black pulls next to a roadside cross and makeshift altar of tired flowers.
Something else catches his eye directly across the street: two pronounced tire tracks in the soil heading from the side of the road into a field but that abruptly stop halfway there.
He abandons the altar and starts snapping photos on his small Sony RX-100, his camera of choice for his website project titled “Geography of Poverty.” Most of the photos he posts there also go on his Instagram account, which has more than 65,000 followers.
“This is an example of why photography is so cool,” he says. “You stop for one thing and discover something else.”
He points to the tracks. Something in the composition of the scene — the unfinished feel of it, the idea of starting a task and then abandoning it — intrigues him, even though thousands of people could probably drive by and never give the image a second thought.
“I can see evidence of something gone wrong,” he says.
In a philosophical sense, “wrong” is an integral part of Black’s work. His images often shatter one of our cherished myths about this country: that the standard of living measures up to the constantly propagated glossiness of middle- and upper-income life.
Yet in his photographs of people, which dominate his Fresno Art Museum show, or of landscapes and buildings, which make up the bulk of his Instagram and “Geography of Poverty” work, there is an indefinable something that balances that which could seem broken or grim: an intimacy, a humanity, a riveting aesthetic.
“He is so totally engaged with his subject matter that his emotional involvement really comes through when he’s telling a story,” says Linda Cano, former executive director of the Fresno Art Museum, who booked his current show there.
His work from Mexico depicts extreme poverty among indigenous people. He photographed the village of Santiago Mitlatongo in the state of Oaxaca, where erosion was burying hillside homes, with no attempt by the government to help. That, combined with the effects of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which flooded the market with American subsidized corn and depressed prices, caused many residents to flee, says Vasquez Santos. Many towns have lost more than half their populations to migration — and many of them are picking the food that winds up on American dinner tables.
People who only speak Miztec can’t understand Spanish. Miztec is now the most spoken indigenous language in California, Vasquez Santos says.
For Black, his work in Mexico is a natural extension of the years he’s spent photographing Valley farmworkers and agriculture.
“For me, it’s all one continuum, one body of work,” he says. “This is one of those great, extensive migrations, on par with the Dust Bowl, that is reshaping our state.”
After giving a lecture at the Fresno Art Museum when his show opened, a member of the audience asked, “What do you do to lighten your heart? Because these are very heavy prints.”
Black pointed at his daughter, Marianne, 12.
“And without my wife, Melissa, none of this would have happened,” he said.
They met as friends working on the student newspaper at Golden West High School in Visalia, but it wasn’t until college that Matt and Melissa Black started dating. They ended up at San Francisco State together: he studying Latin American and labor history, she studying English. They married in 1993 and along with their daughter have a son, Henry, 8.
In high school, Black worked weekends at the Tulare Advance-Register. There he got hooked on black and white photography, and he never stopped making pictures that way. One day in 1988 he volunteered to cover Cesar Chavez, who was breaking a 36-day fast in Delano.
“I went on my own and I shot the pictures, and they ended up putting them in the newspaper, kind of begrudgingly. To me, it was a moment of empowerment for what photography can do. Because I went on my own, the story got published. It got told. It was based on nothing more than the fact that I did it.”
After college graduation, Black could have applied for a staff job at a magazine or daily newspaper. He didn’t. He and his wife agreed to return to the central San Joaquin Valley so he could concentrate on projects he felt strongly about and she could focus on her writing, which also has an activist bent. Her salary as a community college professor helps lend stability to the family finances.
“We had a certain set of ideals that we wanted to adhere to,” she says. “And we decided that Matt was going to pursue these stories and that he would do whatever was necessary to make that happen.”
Whether through sheer talent, luck or persistence, he’s managed to get every major project of his published.
“What makes it so difficult for a photographer like him is the decline of the newspaper business and the vapidness of magazine work,” says Street, who is known, among his many accomplishments, for his 1970s photographs of California agriculture and farmworkers. “It’s much easier to dog the celebrities and get a really crappy picture of Kim Kardashian, which will sell like crazy, as opposed to someone throwing their talents into recording a subject that is in some ways depressing but is way more important.”
Ever since the time of the Depression-era photographers, people have criticized the idea of making “art” out of people’s misery, of exploiting them out of a profit motive.
But it’s hard to make that argument because most documentary photographers are broke, points out Neil Chowdhury, an assistant professor of photography in Fresno State’s art department.
“Documentary photographers make a lot of sacrifices doing this kind of work,” he says. “People aren’t making money at this. Matt’s work requires that kind of freedom. He’s consciously made it work.”
Even with the recent boost in his national name recognition, Black says he can’t imagine leaving the Valley. He and his wife never talked about what they would do if he ever hit it big. (“Perhaps we should have,” she says. “We’ve always been so intent on the work itself.”) At the same time, he just can’t see himself as a New York party guy.
Black has thought a lot about another common criticism of his kind of work: the idea of the outsider coming in and making generalizations about an entire culture or area. Our region is no stranger to national journalists breezing in for a few days and applying the poverty label.
Yes, he’s an outsider, Black says. And any time you bring a camera into a setting, you change the dynamic of that situation. But he makes his home in this Valley, and he knows its nooks and crannies.
“There is a huge difference between that and someone going in to objectify those conditions. I mean, it’s all a gray area. But I think the intention is critical. With 100% honesty and 100% conviction, my intent is to report and help.”
It’s important to him to let people know that the Central Valley isn’t unique in its economic and environmental struggles. This summer he will embark on a three-month road trip across the U.S. to expand his “Geography of Poverty” project for msnbc.com.
Still, his roots are here. His pulse beats strongest in the place he knows best. His photographs help complete the whole picture of a region that he loves.
“Am I giving the Central Valley a fair shake?” he asks. “At this point, I feel at ease with it. No matter what, I’m convinced these are the fundamental stories of this place. Poverty is a fact of life here. It has been easily 100 years now: a recurrent, entrenched, seemingly never-ending structure of poverty. It’s one of the dominant themes here that has to be dealt with.”