American Black & White brings together new work from Matt Black’s series ‘The Geography of Poverty’, shown alongside Elliott Erwitt’s recently rediscovered work shot in Pittsburgh in 1950. Collectively, the distinctive works in this exhibition present a portrait of urban and rural America, shot half a century apart, but united by the medium of black & white photography.
Examining life in the forgotten corners of America during the first months of the Trump presidency, this latest instalment from photographer Matt Black’s ‘The Geography of Poverty’ project finds region after region of the US marked by the competing conditions of poverty, violence, and prejudice as well as hope, honour, and pragmatism. For this ongoing project, Black has travelled 48,0000 miles across 44 US states, photographing communities whose poverty rates are I excess of 20%, and highlighting the country’s growing gap between rich and poor. The works in the series are powerful and graphic black and photographs, and the new works in the exhibition were shot across Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and South Dakota since the start of 2017. Black was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for the project, as well as the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Prize.
In 1950, 22-year-old Elliott Erwitt was commissioned by the legendary Roy Stryker to document Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as it emerged from a notoriously polluted industrial city into a cleaner, more modern metropolis. Erwitt captured the dirt and the grit of the old city, the new buildings of the city’s rebirth, and most importantly, the individuality of the residents of Pittsburgh, creating a unique document of the city. Drafted into the US army in Germany just four months after arriving in Pittsburgh, Erwitt was forced to abandon the project, leaving his negatives behind. For decades, the negatives were held at the Pennsylvania Department of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and as a result, a majority of these photographs have remained unseen for decades and will be exhibited here for the first time. This project, an early reportage in a quintessentially American post-war city revels the making of Erwitt’s photographic style.
Born in Paris in 1928 to Russian parents, Erwitt spent his childhood in Milan, before emigrating to the US with his family in 1939. As a teenager living in Hollywood, he developed an interest in photography and worked in a commercial darkroom before experimenting with photography at Los Angeles City College. In 1948 he moved to New York and exchanged janitorial work for film classes at the New School for Social Research. In 1951 he was drafted for military service and undertook various photographic duties while serving in a unit of the Army Signal Corps in Germany and France. While in New York, Erwitt met Edward Steichen, Robert Capa and Roy Stryker. In 1953 Erwitt joined Magnum Photos and worked as a freelance photographer for Collier's, Look, Life, Holiday and other luminaries in that golden period for illustrated magazines. In the late 1960s Erwitt served as Magnum's president for three years. He then turned to film: in the 1970s he produced several noted documentaries and in the 1980s eighteen comedy films for Home Box Office.
Matt Black, born in 1970, is from California’s Central Valley, an agricultural region in the heart of the state. His work has explored the connections between migration, poverty, agriculture, and the environment in his native rural California and in southern Mexico. Aside from ‘The Geography of Poverty’ recent works include ‘The Dry Land’, about the impact of drought on California’s agricultural communities, and ‘The Monster in the Mountains’, about the disappearance of 43 students in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Both of these projects, accompanied by short films, were published by The New Yorker. He received the W. Eugene Smith Award in 2015. In 2016, he received the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and was named a Senior Fellow at the Emerson Collective. His work has also been honoured by the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Center for Cultural Innovation, and others. He lives in Exeter, a small town in California’s Central Valley. Matt became a Magnum nominee in 2015.