Matt Black: The Central Valley and Mexico

The Robert Koch Gallery is proud to present “Matt Black: The Central Valley and Mexico,” featuring the impactful and raw photography of American artist Matt Black. Operating from California’s Central Valley, Black crafts deeply narrative visuals that are rooted in contemporary social and environmental concerns. “The Central Valley and Mexico” delves into two earlier bodies of work, which, despite their geographical separation, are profoundly connected by their themes. Black’s lens provides a compelling and profound exploration of some of the most marginalized communities across the Americas.

In 1995, Black embarked on a journey to capture the struggles, disempowerment, and resilient hope of communities within California’s Central Valley. The work from “The Central Valley” highlights the myriad challenges faced by residents living and working in one of the world’s most significant agricultural regions. Despite being a powerhouse that generates billions of dollars in economic output, these communities grapple with the burdens of poverty, unemployment, and inadequate access to healthcare and education.
While photographing in the Central Valley, Black noticed a shift in the agricultural workforce, historically a point of transition for various migrant groups. He was particularly intrigued by a group of indigenous immigrants from Mexico, who spoke Trique, Mixtec, or Nahuatl. Their reasons for leaving their homelands fascinated Black and led him to the mountains of Oaxaca, where he witnessed the erosion of an ancient way of life. These mountains, the birthplace of corn cultivation with a history spanning millennia, had succumbed to modern farming techniques, resulting in landslides, crop failures, and a mass exodus to the US in search of opportunities. Those left behind were mostly the elderly and children, struggling to sustain shrinking villages that became targets for drug cartels. Amid this intersection of environmental crisis and economic brutality, Black composed compelling photo essays, such as “The People of Clouds” and “The Monster in the Mountains,” which would eventually comprise the series Mixteca.
Matt Black’s work, firmly grounded in the documentary tradition, is characterized by its deeply personal approach, emotional engagement, and visual intensity. Excerpts from “American Geography” have received widespread acclaim through publications and exhibitions in the United States and abroad. A monograph of “American Geography” was published in 2021 by Thames and Hudson, coinciding with an institutional exhibition that traveled to the Deichtorhallen Hamburg (2020) and the Kunstfoyer, Munich (2021).
Beyond The New Yorker, Black’s photography has graced the pages of TIME Magazine, The California Sunday Magazine, as well as international publications like Le Monde (France) and Internazionale (Italy). In addition to his photography, Black is also a filmmaker, and his short films have been featured in The New Yorker, MSNBC, Orion Magazine, and other notable outlets. As a member of the prestigious Magnum agency, Matt Black has received the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Prize three times, been named a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective, and was honored with the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Award in 2015 for his humanistic photography.

A portrait of Matt Black

About the Author

Commencing in 1995, Black embarked on an extensive photographic exploration of his native region, aiming to encapsulate the marginalization and resilience of communities within California’s Central Valley. His photo essays, including “City of Exiles,” “From Dust to Dust,” “Dessicated Dreams,” “The Lost Boys of California,” “The Dry Land,” “The Valley of Thirst,” “Droughtlandia,” and “I Don’t Think You Should Go to Work Today,” vividly depict the challenges confronted by numerous Valley residents. These individuals strive to survive in one of the world’s most significant agricultural regions, responsible for generating billions of dollars in economic output. Yet, these same communities grapple with the harsh realities of poverty, unemployment, and limited access to healthcare and education. The following is a curated selection from these photographic series.

Matt Black: The Central Valley and Mexico
September 7 – October 21, 2023
Robert Koch Gallery – San Francisco, CA

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