Matt Black’s photographs look brittle and dry. I can feel the scorching heat, I perceive viscerally earth turned to dust, and I see animals desperate for water and people suffering. His pictures get under my skin.
Black’s pictures tell the story of California’s Central Valley, which is officially in a state of emergency. Last year marked the third straight year of below-average rainfall, and still there is no rain. A sense of fear and desperation is pervasive. Twenty years ago Black made a long-term commitment to document life in the Central Valley and later the ongoing drought. He is uniquely equipped to tell the story of how this agricultural region, “the kingdom of food,” as he calls it, turned into the “kingdom of dust.”
He grew up in Visalia, a small town in the Central Valley, worked for a newspaper when he was young, and returned home after he received his undergraduate degree in U.S. labor history and Latin American history. Working for newspapers taught him how to tell a story visually. Living in the region connected him intimately, and his studies provided him with the historical context. Being a photo reporter, and a good one, is his craft: solid reporting, learning the facts, a familiarity with the terrain and its people, and an in-depth focus on the story are 95 percent of his work.
The remaining five percent is reserved for the pleasure of taking pictures – responding intuitively, acknowledging there is mystery beyond what can be seen, and being in awe of what can’t be controlled and embracing it. His reward is the creation of magical images – when the light is perfect and everything coincides – that reveal him as an artist as well as a craftsman.