From the Most Brutal Bottom

Matt Black’s emotional evidence in photographs.

Program cover for issue/performance November 3, 2015, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. [photo: Sue Rugtiv]

Matt Black, American Geography Exhibition at Robert Koch Gallery 49 Geary St, 5th floor, San Francisco February 5 — March 26, 2022

I feel for the photographer Matt Black because right now if you’re trying to move people with tragedy, take a number. But back in 2015 he was a year into his project The Geography of Poverty when he rocked audiences of Pop-Up Magazine in San Francisco. In fact, he was so early into the project for which he’d travel 100,000 miles and cross 46 states to bring back evidence of the dark side of the American Dream that his piece that night was called “Population 46 Million.” He was talking poor people. Shocking as that number sounded then, it’s only grown since the pandemic. Using a number to shape a context is as hard to hold onto these days as sincerity.

On stage, Black was indelible. He stood as tall and still as the trunk of a tree and he spoke in a raspy monotone. It was hard to gauge what he was saying but then the lights went down and his photographs started playing on a giant screen and you knew you were having one of the great theatrical performances of a lifetime. The first image:

Matt Black, El Paso, Texas. 2015. Warehouse district., 2015. Pigment ink print. 36”x36” Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary Street, San Francisco

hit me hard. No experience has ever come as close as seeing this photograph did to the misery I felt as a teenager going to bars with my dad in upstate Michigan. That lonely figure in the imagined small town America, hitting his head on a telephone pole, is the man I pitied and wished I could reclaim. And it’s me mad at myself for not having the strength to give up on him. Bless Matt Black for that picture and for refusing to give up on that man, too.

Now the project name is American Geography and the photographs are in a book put out by Thames and Hudson (not to be confused with the book of the same name that also came out in 2021 of photographs compiled by Sandra Phillips put out by Radius Books.) There’s also a short movie about the making of the work for which Black recorded a voice over narration in which he said: “To me, poverty is not really an economic question, it’s a question of power. Who gets their needs met and who doesn’t.

“I’m not trying to photograph poverty in an objectified sense but poverty in a sense of lived experience. What is it like to be here? What is it like to have your reality surrounded by these totems of power? Social power. Is your street paved or is it not? Do the streetlights work or do they not? When you go downtown are the four or five businesses on a certain block shuttered and closed?

“What is the effect on people’s sense of self? A community sense of self? All these glimpses that you catch out of the corner of your eye but that form the environment of living or growing up or experiencing America from the bottom, from the most brutal bottom.”

Photography has attracted zealots from the beginning. People who want to save people. Photographers and politicians have similar inclinations. Photography was invented in the middle of the 19th century and only a few decades later it was adopted by Theodore Roosevelt who recognized the truths it could tell in service of his policies.

In the 1890s American newspapers were in a fever pitch brawl to get readers. Writers were sensationalists who sometimes accidentally stumbled on a real exposé that they would inflate to excite attention. The stories were illustrated with cartoons. And the fake reporting was called “Yellow Journalism.”

The newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst are both attired as the Yellow Kid comics character of the time, and are competitively claiming ownership of the Spanish-American War of 1898. History.com

A reporter and educator named Jacob Riis (1849–1914), who, like so many immigrants, had been homeless himself, figured out a way of lighting for his photographs so he could illustrate his lectures and books about slums in New York City. His reports in “How the Other Half Lives” (1890) shocked with factual depictions of living conditions.

Jacob Riis. Pedlar Who Slept in the Cellar of 11 Ludlow Street Rear. New York City, 1889. DailyMail.com

Theodore Roosevelt was moved by the evidence and when he became the President in 1901 he told Riis “I have read your book and I have come to help.” Roosevelt dubbed investigative journalists “muckrakers.” He elevated his press secretary to cabinet status and initiated press conferences to sell his policies. He used the press like publicists. Images by Jacob Riis “stimulated the first significant New York legislation to curb tenement house evils.”

And then came Lewis Hine (1874–1940) who had been teaching his students at the Ethical Cultural School in New York City to use photography as an educational medium before 1908 when he was hired by the National Child Labor Committee, a reform organization that used his images in their articles in newspapers and progressive publications.

Lewis Hine. Breaker Boys in a Pennsylvania Coal Mine, 1911. MOMA

Hine is a hero to photojournalists, especially those who work on long form stories like Matt Black. Photo historian Daile Kaplan described how Hine got by suspicious business owners, supervisors, and workers:

“Nattily dressed in a suit, tie, and hat, Hine the gentleman actor and mimic assumed a variety of personas — including Bible salesman, postcard salesman, and industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery — to gain entrance to the workplace. When unable to deflect his confrontations with management, he simply waited outside the canneries, mines, factories, farms, and sweatshops with his fifty pounds of photographic equipment and photographed children as they entered and exited the workplace.”[1]

His sacrifice for the cause led to the creation of the government’s Children’s Bureau in 1912 and then the Fair Labor Standards in 1938 that prohibited child labor in this country to this day. Also, in the 1930s Dorothea Lange was hired along with hundreds of photographers by the Farm Securities Administration, a progressive wing of the Department of Agriculture, to bring evidence to support the creation of policies during the formation of The New Deal. The idea was to redirect water delivery from large corporations to small farmers in the west, and to eliminate the racial discrimination that kept day laborers from owning land in the south, and to recognize the labor of women in farming.

No policies ever resulted directly from their work but Lange’s photographs “to a startling degree” gave us our “popular understanding of the Great Depression of the 1930s.”[2] She was influenced by the movies. Her people were good-looking and they sold poverty with an actor’s appreciation for visual symbolism.

Dorothea Lange, Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, November 1940. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. In An Other Magazine February 10, 2020, “In Pictures: The Unflinching Photography of Dorothea Lange” by Belle Hutton.

Did Lange direct the day laborer to turn the dirt on his hand toward the lens? “I never steal a photograph,” she told her assistant Rondal Partridge. “Never. All photographs are made in collaboration, as part of their thinking as well as mine.” So they both wanted to say farming hurts the little guy.

Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange all found it nearly impossible to get work after they made the pictures that secured their places in history. (Lange’s boss wouldn’t hire Hine!) And all three died poor. But their legacy is a romantic one for photographers like Matt Black. Lange said of her brief:

No one was ever given exact directions[…]You were turned loose in a region, and the assignment was, see what is really there. What does it look like, what does it feel like? What actually is the human condition?” You can imagine this is what moved Black to go beyond the Central Valley and take on the whole country even if they both admit it was hard living like their hard living subjects to get the pictures.

Black’s voice over again: “I park outside the church and sleep in the van. In the night I turn it on and let it run, the heat coming up from the exhaust pipe keeping it warm.”[3] He won’t even say, keeping me warm. He’s got to get into a zone of self-denial being gone six months from his wife, Melissa Martell Black, a professor in the Central Valley. He calls her every night and she records his recollections from the day.

For all the years Black spent on this project, and the difficulty it caused him and his wife, and the various iterations it turned into — the slide lectures, the book, the short films — we might never have understood his work if it hadn’t been for Robert Koch who is the first gallerist to represent Matt Black as an artist. Koch seemed surprised to be the first. Surprised at his luck. Surprised no one had seen Black’s brilliance the way he does. Sincerity flatters them both.

For the show on now in San Francisco, the first large format square picture as you enter (36”x 36”) appropriately pays tribute to and moves on from Dorothea Lange:

Matt Black, Allensworth, California. Fence post, 2014. Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary Street, San Francisco.

You look up at the glorious larger than life sized print, given rich texture in the California sun, and you feel the subject’s power. There’s confidence in framing an arm as solid as a stump and imposing it on us front and center. Even more so for it seeming to be there so casually, no pity or anger, no braggadocio. In the distance beyond is the farmland and the fluffy clouds. A day off for this laborer, perhaps. A bold positive choice at the gallery that excites you to see more.

The printing is exceptional as can only come from large format images made by a master of light. Once Black leaves the Central Valley he begins to experiment with white sometimes taking on operatic proportions. The last time it snowed in his hometown of Visalia was January 25th, 1999, but six of the twenty-two pictures in the exhibition are of snow. Out of town Black experiments during storms, leaving the shutter open for different amounts of time.

Snow becomes in turns abstract, epic, poetic; landscapes with dark figures moving here, moving there, always away from us like memories. In a vacant big box store parking lot in Michigan where there is concrete evidence of poverty, Black opens the story up and lets fiction deepen it. White snow creates a pinch of mystery like salt sprinkled on a blood sucker.

Matt Black, Flint, Michigan, Snowfall, 2016. Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary Street, San Francisco

You can’t create evidence in any other medium quite like this.

[1] Selected Letters and Photographs of Lewis W. Hine. Ed. by Daile Kaplan. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. Library of Congress, National Child Labor Committee Collection.

[2] The Journal of American History, Vol. 93, №3 (Dec. 2006) p. 698, Oxford University Press

[3] “American Geography,” short film by Matt Black, 12:38–12:49 mins.

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Lucy Gray

Top Writer: Photography. I know you are looking. Have a look with me. I will say what I think is worth your time reading.