One by one, they’ve harvested California’s crops: Chinese and Japanese, Armenians and Punjabis, Okies and Mexicans and more. And one by one, they’ve been followed down the rows--by artists and journalists and documentarians, all with cameras at the ready.
“Virtually every California photographer of consequence” has taken to the fields, notes historian Richard Steven Street.
“So alluring are farmworkers as subjects,” Street adds, “that they have attracted the attention” of an amazing array of talent: masters of landscape such as Ansel Adams and Carleton Watkins; famed commercial photographer Max Yavno; Dorothea Lange and Horace Bristol; Joe Rosenthal, who snapped the indelible image of U.S. troops raising the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima; The Times’ Don Bartletti; even Richard Avedon.
I’m convinced that another name will be added to this pantheon someday, if it hasn’t been already: Matt Black, whose poignant pictures accompany Mark Arax’s equally poignant prose in this issue of West (“The Summer of the Death of Hilario Guzman,” page 14).
I have long followed Black’s work; the 36-year-old contributed photos to the book that Arax and I co-authored, “The King of California.” And I’ve always admired, in particular, the composition of his portraits and his graceful use of light. With this latest project, I’ve come to appreciate something else, too: his remarkable tenacity.
In the winter of 1998, a citrus freeze near Black’s home in Lemon Cove idled more than 12,000 Central Valley farmworkers. He set out to photograph the effects and wound up in a house with a big map of Oaxaca tacked on the wall.
“I overheard what I thought were strange sounds,” Black recalls. “I soon learned that I was hearing Mixteco, an indigenous language predating the Spanish conquest.”
Black began scouring the valley, determined to find a family that would allow him to intimately record what was fast becoming the new face of California farm labor. It wasn’t easy. “You’re always greeted with warmth,” Black says. “But there’s a point that you can’t cross. These communities are shut tight to the prying eyes of outsiders.”
He kept at it nonetheless, heading out before dawn with countless agricultural crews. Finally, Black met a Triqui Indian named Moises Merino in a vineyard south of Fresno. He had been told that Merino’s brother-in-law, Hilario Guzman, had died recently, but Black was wary of pressing too hard. A trip to Oaxaca a short while later to visit Guzman’s widow proved pivotal: At last (with the aid of a translator) he was granted the access he needed.
By the time the chase ended, it had been seven years--and 900 rolls of film--since those first strains of Mixteco made Black’s brain, and then his Nikon, start clicking away.