“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. Follow Barbara on Twitter.
Matt Black is a photographer from California’s Central Valley. His work explores themes of migration, farming and the environment in his native rural California and in southern Mexico. His recent photo essays have been published in the New Yorker, Mother Jones and Vice magazines. His work has been honored by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, the World Press Photo Foundation, the Documentary Project Fund, the Alexia Foundation for World Peace, Pictures of the Year International, and the Center for Cultural Innovation, among others. He lives in Exeter, a small town in California’s Central Valley.
Q: How does your intimate connection to the Central Valley influence your photography and commitment to telling the story of the drought and poverty in the region?
A: To me, the quality of your work is totally dependent on how connected you are to what you photograph. That doesn’t mean you have to be from a place to photograph it, of course, it’s just that you need to feel deeply about what you are doing. In my case the Central Valley, these small towns, and the issues they are facing are things I feel strongly about.
Q: How do you think the California drought will affect the rest of the country in the short term and in the long run?
A: The drought is bad and catastrophic in places, but the reality is that it just sped up forces that were already well underway since the 1990s, which is less and less water available for farming in California. We are coming out of the driest year on record, but for most of the state, life went on more or less as usual. It was only in the Central Valley and in the rangelands that people really got hurt. Nothing in the future suggests that this is going to change long term. As resources dwindle, cities will be taken care of and the countryside will suffer. But I think we all need to think long and hard about that. Our entire way of life in this country is based on food from the Central Valley and a handful of other places like it. It’s all one thing, all connected, but very few people seem to understand or care what’s happening on the other side of the divide.
Q: You grew up in the Central Valley – how has the landscape changed from when you were a child?
A: Well, just as an example, behind the house I grew up in was a big field, 80 acres or so, that they grew cotton and corn in, and other crops like that. In about April or May they’d set up these big pipes and they flood irrigated that field all summer long. As soon as they got through one end, they’d move back and start on the other. It’d be 100 degrees outside and that cold, clear water would just keep pouring out of the ground, for months on end. That’s just one example of how things were, but that way of farming is gone for good now. Everything is on drip lines, even crops like cotton and tomatoes. You don’t see a single drop of water on the surface. No one really realized it, but that was an exceptional thing back then, an era of plenty for water and other resources.
Q: What are some of the migration trends you’ve seen in the Central Valley over the years?
A: The story of the Central Valley is the story of migrations. This dates back well before my time, to the Dust Bowl, waves of Chinese immigrants, Japanese, Armenians, Filipinos and so on. Of course, Mexico has been a source of migration for a long time, but the trajectory is shifting south into more isolated parts of country and even further down into Central America. Another part of my work deals with that, following folks back home and trying to understand these sources of migration.
Q: Your documentation of the Central Valley is so comprehensive. How much time do you spend on logistics and navigating the twists and turns of the story versus actual shooting time?
A: It’s all one thing to me, you learn what is going on by being out there and talking to folks. Sometimes you go out to photograph and not much happens but you meet someone, or visit a new place, or learn something new. It’s important to be patient and to value those experiences. Each one of my projects has come from that, just talking to people and being there.
Q: What is your goal with this body of work?
A: To show what is going on and to draw attention to things I think are important.
Q: What is the Geography of Poverty project?
A: It’s a project I am doing on Instagram that combines geotagged images with poverty data to map poor communities. It’s another way to go after the same set of issues, but to do it in a way that uses these new spaces that are opening up: Instagram, Facebook, etc.
Q: You’ve gone really deep with this story, which is in part why it’s so powerful. What are some of the things you do to get away from it and recharge your creative batteries?
A: Doing this kind of work is a big commitment, as you know, and I’ve found you just have to look for satisfaction in other ways. I do a fair amount of work in Mexico and being able to go in between the two projects helps; each one enriches and informs the other. No matter what you do, though, it always seems that the best pictures happen when you least expect it anyways, and you just need to keep yourself ready however you can.
Matt Black is represented by Anastasia Photo
California: Paradise Burning: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/california-paradise-burning
The Dry Land: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/29/dry-land
The Geography of Poverty: http://www.geographyofpoverty.com
Los Angeles Center of Photography, 1515 Wilcox Ave, Los Angeles, California 90028 – February 27 – March 1, 2015