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Photographer reveals farm workers' struggle in modern Dust Bowl

Photographer reveals farm workers' struggle in modern Dust Bowl

Let’s say you’re at a swanky New York party and someone says, hey, I want to introduce you to Time m
Photographer reveals farm workers' struggle in modern Dust Bowl
Matt Black travels around California's Central Valley to take photos of the farming community. (Fresno Bee)

FRESNO, Calif. — Let’s say you’re at a swanky New York party and someone says, hey, I want to introduce you to Time magazine’s 2014 Instagram Photographer of the Year.

What flashes through your mind?

Perhaps fine-dining images that make your tongue tingle — of lamb salad with fregola, say, or plump sea scallops in a base of wasabi coconut sauce. Or maybe you figure that to garner such a national honor the photographer has captured “real” news — wrenching pictures of a flood, hurricane, war or other such calamity caught by a photographer in the right place at the right time.

None of that is Matt Black.

The Exeter, California, photographer has pursued his persistent, patient, stubborn brand of journalism for more than 25 years. It takes him months, sometimes years, to really know a story, to create the trust that allows him to get images few other photographers can.

Or even want.

Black, who indeed did win Time’s 2014 Instagram honor, photographs Central Valley farmworkers: their sunburned faces, their modest homes, their physically demanding lives. He photographs agriculture: the expensive tractors, the abundant yields, the dramatic sweep of a once-arid land transformed into the world’s most impressive food-making machine. Too often lately he photographs drought: the cracked earth, the dust, the human misery.

And, like the pioneering photographers of the 1930s such as Dorothea Lange, known for her searing Depression-era images of the Dust Bowl, he photographs migrations.

He has been to the Miztec region in the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla more than a dozen times, and there he has chronicled our present-day version of the Dust Bowl: the migration of tens of thousands of destitute Miztec-speaking farmers drawn to the Central Valley to work in the agriculture industry.

The 44-year-old graduate of San Francisco State came to the central San Joaquin Valley because he knew it was home to the type of photography he wanted to do. He focuses on issues of poverty, class, environment and other “big-picture” topics that are so easy, in our frenzied and compartmentalized world, to tuck out of sight.

“I regard his as the highest form of photography,” says noted photographer, journalist and historian Richard Steven Street, an Anschultz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University. “He is carrying on, extending and amplifying the work of Dorothea Lange according to his own style and approach.”

And it’s paying off.

Black had a really good 2014. The New Yorker magazine published an eight-page spread of brutally beautiful photos of California’s drought in its print edition, a rare and prestigious honor.

He broke into the world of fine-art photography with a solo show last year, titled “From Clouds to Dust,” and continued representation at the Anastasia Gallery in New York City, where some of the world’s best photojournalism and documentary photography is showcased.

Black didn’t jump up and down with excitement when he learned about the Time magazine or New Yorker honors. That isn’t his way, says his wife, Melissa Martell Black. He is by nature a quiet man, somewhat reticent. But he is gratified by the national attention because it means his work — and the issues it explores — is being seen by more people than ever before.

“I’ve devoted myself to these images,” Black says. “That’s the one voice I have. I’ve got a lot I want to say.”

ON THE ROAD

It is a bright, fair January day, and Black, driving his gray Honda Odyssey van, has emerged from the fog onto a stretch of roadway outside Mendota, California. These are well-traveled byways for him.

In 2009, during California’s last big drought, he rented an apartment for three months on the edge of Mendota just to let the character and nature of the place seep into him. He built a level of familiarity and trust with the residents that could never be attained by out-of-town photographers “parachuting” into a story for a few days.

Black’s photos come from a certain social and political perspective, but it’s a more complex equation than you might think.

He isn’t “anti-agriculture,” he says. In fact, he is awestruck at the massive display of force that humans have used over the decades to transform this region into a breadbasket.

“We farm exactly how we behave. It’s all about mass production and efficiency. I’m not criticizing it — I appreciate it, too. But that’s what fascinates me: how farming and agriculture is such an incredible prism with which to look at society.”

He is more likely to criticize the “hypocrites” who live in major urban centers — Los Angeles is a particular target of his — who bemoan the lives of farmworkers and the environmental impact of agriculture without changing the way they eat, shop or use water.

It’s easy to see how he bonds with people. He walks up to someone, introduces himself as a journalist, then explains why he is there.

He is soft-spoken, tall and lanky, with a beard that, given a week or two, could easily slip into woodsman territory. He looks comfortable in his black Marmot jacket and droopy cargo pants, a common uniform.

“Even the way he dresses, it’s very humble,” says Leoncio Vasquez Santos, executive director of the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities, who has gotten to know the Black through his frequent trips to the Miztec region.

At the corner of Dakota and Jameson avenues, in Mendota, in the midst of dusty fields, Black pulls next to a roadside cross and makeshift altar of tired flowers.

Something else catches his eye directly across the street: two pronounced tire tracks in the soil heading from the side of the road into a field but that abruptly stop halfway there.

He abandons the altar and starts snapping photos on his small Sony RX-100, his camera of choice for his website project titled “Geography of Poverty.” Most of the photos he posts there also go on his Instagram account, which has more than 65,000 followers.

“This is an example of why photography is so cool,” he says. “You stop for one thing and discover something else.”

He points to the tracks. Something in the composition of the scene — the unfinished feel of it, the idea of starting a task and then abandoning it — intrigues him.

“I can see evidence of something gone wrong,” he says.

In his photographs of people, which dominate a Fresno Art Museum show, or of landscapes and buildings, which make up the bulk of his Instagram and “Geography of Poverty” work, there is something that balances that which could seem broken or grim: an intimacy, a humanity, a riveting aesthetic.

His work from Mexico depicts extreme poverty among indigenous people. He photographed the village of Santiago Mitlatongo in the state of Oaxaca, where erosion was burying hillside homes, and there was no attempt by the government to help. That, combined with the effects of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which flooded the market with American subsidized corn and depressed prices, caused many residents to flee, says Vasquez Santos.

Many towns have lost more than half their populations to migration — and many of them are picking the food that winds up on American dinner tables.

People who only speak Miztec can’t understand Spanish. Miztec is now the most spoken indigenous language in California, Vasquez Santos says.

For Black, his work in Mexico is a natural extension of the years he’s spent photographing Valley farmworkers and agriculture.

“For me, it’s all one continuum, one body of work,” he says. “This is one of those great, extensive migrations, on par with the Dust Bowl, that is reshaping our state.”

After hearing his lecture at the Fresno Art Museum when his show opened, a member of the audience asked, “What do you do to lighten your heart? Because these are very heavy prints.”

Black pointed at his daughter, Marianne, 12.

“And without my wife, Melissa, none of this would have happened,” he said.

They met as friends working on the student newspaper at Golden West High School in Visalia, but it wasn’t until college that Matt and Melissa Black started dating. They ended up at San Francisco State together: he studying Latin American and labor history, she studying English. They married in 1993 and along with their daughter have a son, Henry, 8.

In high school, Black worked weekends at the Tulare Advance-Register. There he got hooked on black-and-white photography.

One day in 1988 he volunteered to cover Cesar Chavez, who was breaking a 36-day fast in Delano.

His wife’s salary as a community college professor helps lend stability to the family finances.

“We had a certain set of ideals that we wanted to adhere to,” she says. “And we decided that Matt was going to pursue these stories and that he would do whatever was necessary to make that happen.”

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