Friday, October 2, 2015

Geography of Poverty


A Photographer Instagrams the Poorest Places in the US

  • by Allison Meier on October 1, 2015

  • Warehouse district. El Paso, Texas (photo by Matt Black)
    Warehouse district, El Paso, Texas (photo by Matt Black)

    This past summer photographer Matt Black covered 18,000 miles of the poorest places in the United States. His Geography of Poverty project was presented in two main ways, one through a multimedia feature on on MSNBC, and the other through a real-time Instagram feed that harnessed the geotagging features of the social media platform to map the country’s marginalized corners.

    'Geography of Poverty' on MSNBC (screenshot via
    ‘Geography of Poverty’ on MSNBC (screenshot via

    Currently his Geography of Poverty photographs are on view at Anastasia Photo on the Lower East Side. Black’s journey, honored this year by Magnum which named him one of their nominees, was also presented at last month’s Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Park, where a huge map displayed selected photographs accompanied by census data. The series is simultaneously a traditional documentary photography project with the black-and-white style of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era work, where no detail was too small to reveal the trials of daily life, and an experiment in data visualization. Black recently posted a map based on the geotagged data chronicling the whole route. Each place he visited has a poverty rate above 20%, and these statistics are starkly presented beneath each photograph on his Instagram (@mattblack_blackmatt).
    Some photographs are direct, like a man searching for scrap metal in the debris of Flint, Michigan, where 41.5% of its population lives below the poverty level. In another a man in Kern County, California — where 22% of the population lives below the poverty level — reveals a bandage on his arm; Black notes that “those with low incomes are up to twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.” Others are close portraits of faces framed by inky darkness, while many are more ambiguous. In Syracuse, New York, where in a population of 145,170 the poverty level is 34.6%, a man in a suit walks through the shadowy contrast of giant classical columns, and in Tulare, California, where 21.4% of its 59,278 citizens are below the poverty level, an ominous crowd of birds perches on power lines.

    Photograph from Hosmer, South Dakota, on Matt Black's Instagram (screenshot via Instagram)
    Photograph from Hosmer, South Dakota, on Matt Black’s Instagram (screenshot via Instagram)

    'Geography of Poverty' on MSNBC (screenshot via
    ‘Geography of Poverty’ on MSNBC (screenshot via

    In an essay accompanying the feature component on MSNBC, Pulitzer-winner Trymaine Lee writes:
    From border to border, high-poverty rates have crippled entire communities, leaving bellies burning with hunger and hope of better days dwindling. Income inequality has widened in recent decades while upward mobility has declined. A tiny percentage of high income Americans hold the majority of the wealth in this country.
    Lee adds that the “poverty rate for African Americans and Hispanics is particularly stark, with 27% and 23.5% respectively falling below the poverty line.” For two decades prior to the Geography of Poverty project, Black photographed the economic hardships of Central Valley in his home state of California. However, he wanted to emphasize that poverty was not just a rural problem, that it is everywhere in the country, and it’s possible to circle the whole United States by only passing through these impoverished areas. The Geography of Poverty is in this way a portraiture project, where near and far the data of inequality is mirrored by powerful, first-hand visuals.

    Fence post. Allensworth, California (photo by Matt Black)
    Fence post. Allensworth, California (photo by Matt Black)

    Photographs from 'Geography of Poverty' installed at Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
    Photographs from ‘Geography of Poverty’ installed at Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

    Burning tires. Corcoran, California (photo by Matt Black)
    Burning tires. Corcoran, California (photo by Matt Black)

    A map of 'Geography of Poverty' installed at Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
    A map of ‘Geography of Poverty’ installed at Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

    Matt Black: The Geography of Poverty continues at Anastasia Photo (143 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 1.



    An Artist Transforms His Sketchbooks into a Story

    by Ysabelle Cheung on October 1, 2015
    A page from Anders Nilsen's 'Poetry is Useless' (all images courtesy Drawn & Quarterly) (click to enlarge)
    A page from Anders Nilsen’s ‘Poetry is Useless’ (all images courtesy Drawn & Quarterly) (click to enlarge)
    Why does one publish a sketchbook? What unmoored narratives does an artist allow to be revealed, and what obligation does she have to collect her thoughts cohesively? Art Spiegelman was tortured by the idea of publishing, faithfully, his sketchbook pages (he did so anyway, in 2009’s Be a Nose!), as he felt them unfinished; other comics artists have similarly felt pressured to conjure up polished books originally intended for private archives. In Poetry is Useless, Anders Nilsen’s latest offering, published by Drawn & Quarterly, the sketchbook is presented not simply as a compendium of works in progress but also as a vehicle for telling stories. Here, Nilsen deconstructs spatial and conceptual demarcations by starting with scans of his journals — the edges, saddle stitches, and ribbon bookmarks visibleand then drawing on top of and around them; in this way, the sketchbook pages become almost like traditional comics panels, from which doodles and words climb out into the actual book.
    Anders Nilsen, cover of 'Poetry is Useless' (click to enlarge)
    Anders Nilsen, cover of ‘Poetry is Useless’ (click to enlarge)
    It’s rather difficult to read, but not impossible — Poetry is Useless should be absorbed over a long period of time, and not necessarily tackled as a chronological book. The switches between comic strip and illustration, as well as text-inundated page and wordless story, take a while to get used to, especially since you get the feeling that there are deliberate messages Nilsen wants to convey.
    His observations on life hum with humor and brio; in the same deadpan tones he’s previously assigned to anthropomorphized birds (in Big Questions) and apathetic gods (in Rage of Poseidon), Nilsen theorizes about art, nihilism, relationships, politics, and love. These fragmented thoughts are interspersed with lists and, infrequently, complete comic strips. For example, a double-page sketchbook spread on page 137 shows, on the left, a silhouette icon saying “Suicide is overrated; I prefer shopping.” Opposite, a wooly tusked boar responds: “Suicide is overrated; I prefer potato salad.” Said boar then eats a bowl of potato salad. Absurd? Absolutely. But the juxtaposition of these words with Nilsen’s delicate stippling and sketching is funny and true, remindering us of the way topics such as death and suicide are sometimes discussed in a blasé manner. This satirical (and cynical) subversion continues throughout the book as a conflicted commentary on human interaction and how desensitized we’ve become.
    A spread from Anders Nilsen's 'Poetry is Useless' (click to enlarge)
    A spread from Anders Nilsen’s ‘Poetry is Useless’ (click to enlarge)
    Once I stopped forcing myself to read the book chronologically, I began to notice certain anchors or recurrent motifs that add body to Poetry’s structure. The most consistent character is Nilsen’s semi-autobiographical silhouette icon, a snarky voice of reason constantly reminding us that poetry is useless. “It’ll help us if we just get it out of the way,” he says in the introduction, and then later: “It’s just another way the ruling class maintains its animal Oppenheimer cow’s milk.” Sometimes there are clusters of themed images: over pages 26–39, Nilsen gathers his detailed drawings of vintage toys such as McDonald’s Hamburglar in his getaway car, Mickey Mouse, and a wind-up bunny; the characters are instantly recognizable without any labels, evoking childhood nostalgia. Then there are direct observational sketches from described times and places: profiles at an Easter vigil service in March 2012, a portrait of a woman he met on a train from Zurich to Lucerne in 2013. There is something quite removed about these time-stamped drawings, which record moments but little concrete information about their subjects.
    A page from Anders Nilsen's 'Poetry is Useless'
    A page from Anders Nilsen’s ‘Poetry is Useless’ (click to enlarge)
    Whereas Nilsen’s award-winning Big Questions (2011) could be criticized for being too minimal, too abstracted from human sentience, Poetry deliberately veers towards a discussion of intimacy and what we, as a society, make of our daily human interactions with each other. For example, in one especially compelling strip, Nilsen meets a fan after a book signing who confesses that he has the exact same name. In the course of their conversation, it’s revealed that the fan’s wife’s also shares a name with Nilsen’s former fiancée, who died of Hodgkin’s disease and is the subject of his 2006 book Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow. One of the rare comic strips here that’s actually complete, the anecdote tussles with the uncomfortable coincidences of life — “with a few details changed, you’re actually telling other people their own stories, just before they happen” — and loss. While it’s interesting to see how an idea in Nilsen’s head makes its way onto the page — he ekes out an image or character over and over again across the book before it’s right — vignettes like this one ultimate make Poetry a larger story about connection and disconnection, one that consciously weaves in and out of the scribbles.
    A page from Anders Nilsen's 'Poetry is Useless' (click to enlarge)
    A page from Anders Nilsen’s ‘Poetry is Useless’ (click to enlarge)
    Anders Nilsen’s Poetry is Useless, published by Drawn & Quarterly, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
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    The New York Times

    The New York Times

    The Voyages Issue: Six Photographers on Their Dream Journeys

    Photo essays from around the world by Bieke Depoorter, George Georgiou, Glenna Gordon, Alec Soth, George Steinmetz and Hiroshi Sugimoto. SEPT. 23, 2015

    Video by George Steinmetz
    Visual journeys by six photographers

    "Travelers tend to go where other travelers have gone, and perhaps this is part of the reason travel photography remains in thrall to the typical. When you do visit Zurich or Cape Town or Bangkok, they are very much alike: The amusement parks have striking similarities, the cafes all play the same Brazilian music, the malls are interchangeable, kids on the school buses resemble one another and the interiors of middle-class homes conform to the same parameters.This doesn’t mean the world is uninteresting. It only means that the world is more uniform than most photo essays acknowledge, and that a lot of travel photography relies on an easy essentialism. I like Italo Calvino’s idea of ‘continuous cities,’ as described in the novel ‘Invisible Cities.’ He suggests that there is actually just one big, continuous city that does not begin or end: ‘Only the name of the airport changes.’ What is then interesting is to find, in that continuity, the less-obvious differences of texture: the signs, the markings, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape. This is what outstanding photographers are able to do, and it is the target the rest of us chase.’’
    —TEJU COLE, from the introduction to The Voyages Issue


    A man selling locks as passengers board the train and prepare for the journey north. Many passengers take a lot of luggage and other goods that are easier to carry by train than by road, but the train is not without risks, especially theft. Glenna Gordon for The New York Times

    A man stretching across the second-class compartment. Glenna Gordon for The New York Times

    Luzanivka, a working-class beach near Arcadia. George Georgiou for The New York Times

    In Vulcanesti, a Soviet-era war memorial: “The Living Are Grateful to You Forever.” George Georgiou for The New York Times

    Constanta, Romania. Completed before World War I, the Constanta Casino fell into ruin when the Soviet Union collapsed. Now the European Union is funding a restoration. George Georgiou for The New York Times

    Mud and salt ponds in Burgas, Bulgaria. George Georgiou for The New York Times

    The Buzludzha Monument, in the remote Central Balkan Mountains, has been closed since the fall of the Soviet Union. It was completed in 1981 to commemorate the founding of what would become the Bulgarian Communist Party. George Georgiou for The New York Times

    Inside the Buzludzha Monument. George Georgiou for The New York Times

    Sari, a D.J., dancer and singer. ‘‘She walked through the hotel dressed like this, and it created a bit of a sensation. There’s a scene in ‘Lost in Translation’ where Scarlett Johansson wears a pink wig, so I wanted someone to wear a pink wig I bought. But Sari had this blue wig and a bob that somehow achieved the same quality.’’ Alec Soth/Magnum, for The New York Times

    Singers from the Ganguro Cafe, part of the Ganguro fashion revival. ‘‘I asked them to sing, but they ended up dancing. I liked the idea of bringing in entertainment, though they caused a problem by being flamboyant in a hotel that’s not flamboyant. They seemed bored. They were just on their phones all the time.’’ Alec Soth/Magnum, for The New York Times

    Hiroko Inomata, an assistant to the private chef. ‘‘She was just in heaven with these bugs. She was so enthusiastic. Later, this bug landed on the window outside. (We were really high up, not an area where there are many bugs — I hadn’t seen a bug my whole time there.) And she went over to the window and was kind of petting the glass and talking affectionately to this bug. But she talked about how she wanted to eat it. I thought it was weird after she was simulating petting it.’’ Alec Soth/Magnum, for The New York Times

    The photographer’s son, 13-year-old John Steinmetz, exploring one of the many small summits in the rain-eroded labyrinth of Roraima, which is composed of Precambrian sandstone, some of the oldest rock on earth. George Steinmetz for The New York Times

    Wet, windy weather has carved pagodalike formations into the top of the Kukenán tepui. George Steinmetz for The New York Times

    Longboats at Puerto Ucaima on the Carrao River waiting to carry tourists to sites below Angel Falls. George Steinmetz for The New York Times

    A small plane is the only way to reach Uruyen, a roadless Pemón Indian village near Auyán tepui. George Steinmetz for The New York Times

    A girl named Selma in Ayvansaray, Istanbul. Bieke Depoorter/Magnum Photos

    Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza. It was here that Sugimoto realized he had been retracing some of the steps of the teenage Japanese emissaries he had been reading about. A mural in the theater commemorates the night in 1585 that a musical performance was given in their honor. Hiroshi Sugimoto

    Teatro Villa Aldrovandi-Mazzacorrati, Bologna (stage side). As with this “teatrino,” or “little theater,” built as part of a private villa in Bologna, Sugimoto often supplied his own screen system. Here, he projected “Le Notti Bianche” (“White Nights’'), a 1957 film by Luchino Visconti. Hiroshi Sugimoto

    Teatro Villa Aldrovandi-Mazzacorati, Bologna (seating side). Although this theater was built long after the Japanese Christians traveled through Italy, Sugimoto visited many of the places they had been in Bologna. Hiroshi Sugimoto

    The Pantheon, Rome. In Rome, the Japanese travelers put on kimonos and samurai swords for their presentation to Pope Gregory XIII. After Gregory died a few days later, they attended the coronation of his successor, Sixtus V, before embarking on what became a four-year trip home. At the end of his trips to Italy, Sugimoto returned to New York, where he has been living, for the most part, since 1974. “That wasn’t my plan,” he says. “I was just a traveler, but I got comfortable, and I stayed.” Hiroshi Sugimoto

    Correction: An earlier version of a picture caption with this photo essay misidentified the assistant to Uchiyama Shoichi, a private chef and ecologist. She is Hiroko Inomata, not Asami Tonai.