A Landscape Of Abundance Becomes A Landscape Of Scarcity

May 4, 2015
Originally published on June 1, 2015 5:28 pm

Photographer Matt Black grew up in California's Central Valley. He has dedicated his life to documenting the area's small towns and farmers.

Last year, he says he realized what had been a mild drought was now severe. It had simply stopped raining.

"It was kind of a daily surreal thing to walk outside," Black says.

Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown announced the first mandatory water restrictions in the state's history, as California endures its fourth year of drought.

The Central Valley makes up less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland, but grows a quarter of the nation's food. Black says if the drought continues, it could be a problem not just for the state, but the entire country.

"What I've seen is this landscape of abundance become this landscape of scarcity," he says.

His images show a region covered with dust and tumbleweeds. "It strikes you kind of at a very visceral level to go to a place that not too many years ago was green and lush and full of food," he says. "This landscape has been humbled."

The focus of Black's photography, he says, is on documenting the drought's impact on communities that he believes rarely receive the attention they deserve.

Sheep farmers, for example, have worked in the Central Valley for generations. Now, their industry could meet its end within a matter of years, in part because of the drought.

For farmers, it's a yearly struggle to bring in these crops even under the best of circumstances. Still, he says, people aren't giving up.

"People are not folding up and moving out," he says. "They are trying to figure out a way to make it work. I think the hope really lies in that."

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Matt Black has long photographed California's Central Valley. The area grows about a quarter of the food Americans eat, but Black told us the landscape looks very different than it did just a few years ago.

MATT BLACK: The winter before last, it simply stopped raining.


BLACK: What I've seen is this landscape of abundance become a landscape of scarcity. It strikes you on a very kind of visceral level to go to a place that was green and lush, to go there and look at it now and it's a field full of dust and tumbleweeds.


BLACK: There's one photo of a group of sheep going through a shuttle, a little corral, to be transported to be fed because in the Central Valley they had run out of food completely. And the man who's kind of driving the sheep, who's just desperately kind of twisting around trying to get them up this chute and into the truck. And I just - I think the picture shows the level of desperation that so many people are facing here in the Central Valley in the face of this restriction.


BLACK: People are trying to figure out a way to make it work. People are not giving up. I think the hope really lies in that.


INSKEEP: Photographer Matt Black. You can see that photo and others at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.