I stumbled across Matt Black’s American Geography “zine” while looking for something else, and just couldn’t help myself. First of, it’s another one to add to my mini-collection of “America*” books; second off, it’s sorta unique in that it’s meant to function like a zine or book, and (with two copies) as an exhibition, which appeals to my painting and art history backgrounds. It’s a strange and wonderful object, to be sure.
I’ll come right out with it, here, while I really like the format and the way Black mixed text and image (more on both later), I don’t like the way he treats his photographs. The first example on his page about the project is exemplar: too glossy, too artificially contrasty, clarity slider pushed too far, whatever. It’s unnatural. And I say this both as someone who has photographed decrepit towns in black & white in broad daylight, and as someone who pushed the clarity slider too far a time or two…
With that out of the way, I’ll only say good things going forwards.
Black organized American Geography, the zine, into four chapters based on the four quadrants fo the country (South + West, South + East, North + East, North + West). Each chapter is made up of three textual bits—selections from Black’s journals—and a bunch of images, and each chapter occupies its own folio of 4 newspaper-sized pages. A single page serves as a sort of cover or wrapper for the folios. The first bit of text takes up most of the inside panel of the cover, and serves (in my mind, anyway) as a sort of introduction to the project.
For the project (according to this initial text), Black packed up a Panasonic digital camera, an X-Pan film camera, 6 lenses, and thirty rolls of film, hopped on a bus from Fresno, CA to Calexico, CA, and from there to Bangor, ME, and back. He wanted to see “Just how many other places like mine are there in America? These half-broken towns, in America but of no dream, just how far does it go?”** And, well, he found precisely what he was looking for.
From this introductory text (that I now realize was not really the introduction I thought it was), I sorta thought the project came out of this one 3200 mile bus trip, but that’s not the case. Had I paid attention to the dates of Black’s journal excerpts, I would’ve realized this. Had I read the Magnum description of the zine, I might have understood that American Geography is a distillation of “photographs, personal journal entries, and images of objects collected from his travels over the past seven years,” which explains some of the inconsistencies or strangeness I found. For example, Chapter 2: South + East begins in a Springfield, MO bus station, where Black is waiting for a bus to take him home. In another section, he takes a brief drive north through Mississippi. I know I said I would stay positive, so apologies: I hate text that is internally inconsistent. As literal excerpts from his journals, it works ok, but when you begin a story with “I’m waiting for a bus to take me from Southern California to northeastern Maine and back again,” then maybe the rest of the book should support that narrative, even if you have to fake things, fictionalize the journey slightly, reorder it in time, change names to protect the innocent, whatever. I mean, it’s Black’s zine thing, so he can do what he wants, but, well, “Internal consistency is important.” (Says the man whose thinking is dominated by cognitive dissonance.)
The organization is sorta right on. As mentioned, American Geography is organized into four chapters, each a quadrant of the country, and each made up of a single folio of four or five newspaper-sized pages. In each, Black seems to have collected something: cardboard signs in the South + West; flattened cigarette packages in the South + East; twisted coat hangers and bits of metal in the North + East; broken cutlery in the North + West. I want to think he picked one thing to collect in each quadrant, but I bet they were collected on different trips or maybe all at the same time. I’d also like to think he laid them all out on a floor or table and photographed from above, but I’m pretty sure they’ve all been digitally cut out and composited, not that that matters at all. Other things have also been cut out and pasted onto the white field of the page, and given the treatment on the rest of the images, well, again, it’s Black’s zine thing, his pictures, his journal entires, and he can do what he wants with them.
I really do appreciate American Geography as an object and a thing, even if I don’t much care for the way it’s organized (as a narrative), or the treatment to which Black subjects his photographs, or, really, the project he set out for himself. I know Black has been at this a long time, and that he’s a respected photojournalist concerned with inequality, but this specific project, and this treatment of it, smells like poverty porn to me. I don’t really like it.
Overall, I reluctantly rate American Geography a barely passable 3.4 stars.
American Geography seems to be out of print, but most of the images are available at Black’s website. And while you’re there, take a look around. The “Stories” section has a bunch of links to articles and interviews, and Black speaks well about his concerns and his project. According to a 2018 interview on NPR, he tried to photograph “the lived experience of poverty,” and I appreciate the attempt, though I’m not sure he made it. He didn’t make it, for me, anyway.
*I’m not sure where I started, but: American Photographs; The Americans; The American Monument; American Surfaces; America; American Roulette; Americans Parade… I could probably go on.
**Black, Matt. “Notebook: Friday, January 5, 2016. Fresno, CA” in American Geography. Self published. 2020.