American Geography

Image of American Geography
Release Date: 
October 5, 2021
Thames & Hudson
Reviewed by: 

In the whimsical 1990 film L.A. Story, Steve Martin’s character falls in love with the girl he never knew he was dreaming about and is trying desperately to impress her when they finally go on a date. “So there I was jabbering at her about my new job as a serious newsman,” he narrates as his character chats and chats and looks into her eyes and chats and chats, “about anything at all. But all I could think was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful and yet again, wonderful.

A standard book review is supposed to be between 550 and 600 words. We could really do this one in 12.

In what is surprisingly the Magnum photographer’s first monograph, at the age of 51, Matt Black presents several years of life on the road through an America in crisis. One can easily trace the DNA of this book and feel not only the times that they were made but the times that they were edited. The photographs presented here are confrontational, the only possible product of an America deeply in need of confrontation, and one suspects that had this book been edited even five years ago, before the sudden leap of Graciela Iturbide into the collective consciousness, that it might have looked quite different.

There are indicia here of other hands, too:  eight years ago, Black might have been offered photographic employment by the FSA or WPA to tell the story of the many poor strugglers along the plains living their lives of quiet desperation; Lange and Evans live here in a time when the subjects they were drawn to are not the story, just the supplement. Still, the photographs presented here by Black provide the same tenderness: carefully selected work that narrowly threads the needle. He gestures, never points. He empathizes, but does not pity.

The photographs are remarkable, especially considering their brief three-year timespan of creation; but one must acknowledge that the presentation of the book, as a whole, has some missteps: there are collage photographs that, while well-composed, will be universally misunderstood, and diary entries that, while well written, will go unread. No matter how carefully crushed, speared, or placed they might be, in a good cocktail nobody really cares, that much, about the garnish.

All in all, this is a lovely body of work that will surely be a fine accompaniment to whatever exhibition it ends up tied to, the exhibition it richly deserves. Black needs and demands little praise, decades into a long career with one of the world’s most prestigious agency. Still, American Geography begs a question: Why in the world did it take so long for the artist to earn his first monograph, and how long must we wait for the next?