Reviewed June 2016
Deirdre D. Spencer, Librarian for History of Art
University of Michigan, Fine Arts Library
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The Geography of Poverty is an online exhibition of powerful photographs taken by Matt Black during his 18,000 mile odyssey to document poverty across the United States during the summer of 2015. Originally posted to Instagram, the photographs were also displayed at Anastasia Photo in New York City, and on several web locations including Black’s own website. Using census and demographic data obtained from the American Community Survey, American Fact Finder, and Social Explorer to locate communities with poverty rates of twenty percent or higher, Black turned his lens on the poorest areas of the country. The project officially concluded on October 1, 2015, but, as of April 2016, Black has added to the website photos representing the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and a link to a new photo essay entitled The Fall of Flint.

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The evocative photographs in this exhibition cover a multiplicity of locales and themes, with images that range from portraits and street scenes to abstract impressions of nature and local scenery. The photographs depict men, women, and children of varying ages and ethnicities from all parts of the country. Economic depression is represented in decayed urban and rural architecture, shuttered retail establishments, and abandoned factories, as well as in the faces and bodies of the people that Black photographed. Captions accompany the images, but vary in their intent and content. Some captions contain solely demographic and geographic information about the location where Black took the photograph, while others include narrative descriptions that evoke the photographer’s experience while taking the photo. For example, one caption vividly describes sitting at the back of a bus near the acrid-smelling toilet, being jostled by each bump in the road. Yet other captions simply note the name of each town and county, and the town’s population and percentage of residents living below the poverty level. 

The resource will be of interest to students and curators of photography, as well as to those interested in the story of poverty in America, including writers, sociologists, economists, and historians. The photographs and their captions encourage the observer to engage with, or perhaps personally recollect, experiences of economic lack. Black’s photographs, as well as his conversations with writers such as Barbara Ehrenreich, prompt questions about large and small-scale economic issues, as well as public policy decisions affecting the lives of the poor.

The website runs on a Tumblr platform, and the user experience of the site bears the characteristics and limitations of this platform. The site welcomes comments and enables sharing of images, but it is only searchable by hashtags, which are inconsistently applied, and the interface allows only scrolling through image after image or individually viewing images. Given the content of the online exhibition, the website could benefit from search or browse capabilities such as searching by location, gender, or keyword, as well as the ability to view photographs side by side or in groupings. 

The artistic style of the Matt Black’s portraits evokes the work of iconic artists such as Dorothea Lange, Charles White, and Walker Evans, although Black’s work drifts into meditative abstraction rather than strictly portraying places and people affected by economic disparity in the United States. The addition of recent photographs reflecting the Flint water crisis update Black’s original odyssey of poverty as well. The Geography of Poverty is an affecting, well-executed photographic essay that continues to evolve.