Matt Black is an American documentary photographer with the Magnum agency (Magnum Photos 2020). He is known for his projects revealing the poverty and deprivation across much of the United States, especially in more rural areas. They include projects like The Geography of Poverty, The Black Okies and The Dry Land (Magnum Photos 2020). Black’s practice is relevant to mine because part of my intention is to show the scale of inequality here in Oxford. It is also relevant because Black photographs in black and white.
Black has a phrase that has stuck in my mind: ‘The work of a photographer is to reveal hidden things’ (Magnum Photos 2020). Things may be hidden for many reasons but what I have picked up here is the importance of looking beneath appearances and also of paying attention to details. A fleeting gesture, as in Fig. 1, can be recorded or missed in a few seconds.
Details may show the extraordinary in the ordinary, in Stephen Shore’s formula (O’Hagan 2015), but they may also reveal hidden truths we may or may not wish to see. So details matter, a lot. In terms of my practice, details are a way of introducing suggestion and anticipation. They suggest human presence by its absence. That is important to me because I am deliberately not introducing people into my images. If there is a person in the image then the story changes and becomes all about them. That is not the story I want to tell. My story is about a silent city – what is left when human presence is suggested, but not stated.
Black comes from a community similar to those he photographs. I like his bluff, no-nonsense approach that places a premium on honesty and integrity. This is a timely reminder of the importance of ethics in my work. People will not trust you, and have no reason to, if you are untrustworthy with them. Building trust takes time. The good images only come after your subjects allow you in, otherwise the photography will always be from the margins, the outside, and it will show. In Black’s words,
‘My approach is the same: I put what I am doing on the table, I tell people why I’m there and why I think it’s important. At this point, I have the benefit of clarity. Being clear helps when it comes time to explain.’ … ‘But the bigger point is this: language, culture, looks and appearance, all of that melts away when you’ve built a real understanding with somebody. People really communicate on a totally different level than language. You’re credible, you’re not; you care, you don’t – that’s how people size you up. That’s been my experience’ (Alexia Foundation 2012).
Black is also good on the importance of becoming fully involved. If you want results you have to give it your all:
‘ …my work in general, and I think the broader role that documentary photography should play, is in pointing out those uncomfortable realities. … You do experience things differently as a photographer. You experience things more viscerally and directly, you go places that other people don’t go. That’s what it does, it immerses you even more deeply in an environment. … To me that’s one of the great rewards of doing this work, you get to see things on this basic, human, observational level, and it informs who you are as a person. … Photography is the voice I have and when you accept a voice or you accept a medium to work in you also inherently accept its limitations. So I focus on what I can do best … ‘ (British Journal of Photography 2015).
This is good to hear and not dissimilar to what Larry Towell has said. Perhaps all really good photographers would say it. Black again,
‘The main thing I’ve learned is that you have to give up thinking you’re in charge of your work. You’re really not, so I don’t get frustrated when things aren’t going the way I thought they might. I’ve learned to remain open. … To become your own photographer takes time, and a lot of hard work. That’s what the challenge is: keeping true to something when you don’t really know what’s next’ (Alexia Foundation 2012).
This is eerily similar to my path through Falmouth: to find my voice, which requires hard work and not trying to manipulate outcomes, and then to remain true to one’s voice. This requires clarity, which Black considers extremely important
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?
To tell a truth as simply as possible.
Black’s voice stands out among the poor and migrant communities whose stories he tries to tell. To me he is inspirational. As Black says, ‘ … you can’t talk about poverty in isolation without talking about everything else. It’s a part of a social structure, therefore everyone is involved. You can’t objectify into “us” and “them”. … Everything is separating, becoming more unequal – and the whole idea of a common country seems to be coming apart’ (Genova 2018). I feel exactly the same about my country and the demagogues who run it.
ALEXIA FOUNDATION. 2012. ‘Interview with Matt Black’. Alexia Foundation [online]. Available at: https://www.alexiafoundation.org/blog/2012/10/09/interview-with-matt-black/ [accessed 19 Jul 2020].
BEHRMANN, Kai. 2020. ‘Matt Black: “Let The Pictures Come To You”’. The Art of Creative Photography [online]. Available at: https://artofcreativephotography.com/professionalphotojournalists/let-the-pictures-come-to-you-matt-black/ [accessed 21 Jul 2020].
BLACK, Matt. 2020. ‘Matt Black’. Matt Black [online]. Available at: https://www.mattblack.com/ [accessed 22 Jul 2020].
BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2015. ‘Matt Black’s “Moral” Photography of America’s Sprawling Poverty’. bjp-online [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2015/08/matt-blacks-moral-photography-of-americas-sprawling-poverty/ [accessed 20 Jul 2020].
GENOVA, Alexandra. 2018. ‘The Geography of Poverty in America: Matt Black’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/society-arts-culture/poverty-and-mythologies-in-america/ [accessed 17 Jul 2020].
MAGNUM PHOTOS. 2020. ‘Matt Black – Photographer Profiles’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/matt-black/ [accessed 19 Jul 2020].
O’HAGAN, Sean. 2015. ‘Shady Character: How Stephen Shore Taught America to See in Living Colour.’ The Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jul/09/stephen-shore-america-colour-photography-1970s [accessed 4 Mar 2020].
Figure 1. Matt BLACK. 2015. El Paso, Texas. From: Magnum Photos. 2020. ‘Matt Black – Photographer Profiles’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/matt-black/ [accessed 19 Jul 2020].
Figure 2. Matt BLACK. 2014. Fallowed Tomato Fields, Corcoran, California. From: Magnum Photos. 2020. ‘Matt Black – Photographer Profiles’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/matt-black/ [accessed 19 Jul 2020].