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Magnum photographer Matt Black on America’s unseen

Posted on 02 Nov 2021

In this evocative extract from his monograph ‘American Geography’, Matt Black reports from America’s waiting rooms, buses and forgotten motels, on his five-year photographic odyssey across the country.

© 2021 Matt Black. Calumet, Michigan.


Leaving home. I once told myself that all I needed to understand was my corner of the world, but I’ve been crisscrossing the country for a year now, and all I want to do is see more.

I’m catching the 11:00 p.m. bus from Fresno to Calexico, 438 miles, 10 hours. One backpack with one pair of pants, one long-sleeved shirt, one T-shirt, jacket, hat, four pairs of socks. Panasonic camera, XPan camera, six lenses, thirty rolls of film. From Calexico, I’ll take the bus cross-country, to Bangor, Maine, and back. It’s 3,317 miles, one way. About six weeks.

The waiting room is largely empty, mostly women sitting with their bags: a young woman with long hair and a cell phone; a middle-aged woman in a black zippered jacket; an old woman with glasses.

The bus is white, unmarked, and there are ten passengers, including me. The driver announces the rules: no smoking, no cussing, no music. A passenger replies: “God bless you.” South on Highway 99, we pass through Tulare, Delano, Bakersfield, and arrive in Los Angeles at 3:40 a.m. The highway off-ramp is lined with shanties. City Hall is so brightly lit, it spills a white haze across the empty downtown and fills the dampened bus windows with a gauzy shimmer.

The sun rises in the town of Indio as the bus picks up a young family with two egg crates tied with twine for luggage. We arrive in Calexico two hours late. I walk three blocks to the Border Motel, on 4th Street, a low-slung building with a tile roof and bars on the windows, and pay my $50 plus $10 key deposit, cash. While I fill out the form, the clerk tells me three times that I am the only one allowed in the room. The last time, for emphasis, he says if he sees anyone else in my room, he’ll keep the deposit and kick me out.

It’s the first night of another long journey.

© 2021 Matt Black. El Paso, Texas.

© 2021 Matt Black. Lindsay, California.

© 2021 Matt Black. Buffalo, New York.

© 2021 Matt Black. Madawaska, Maine.

Text extracted from American Geography: A Reckoning with a Dream by Matt Black.

American Geography

A Reckoning with a Dream Matt Black