More than meets the eye: VA photographer aims to capture ‘The American Condition’

by | Aug 18, 2017 | ART

One summer, a grandfather decided to take his 10-year-old grandson on a roadtrip. The family had been through a great deal as the man’s wife was dying of Alzheimer’s disease. The man would take the boy from their home in Virginia and through the American landscape. 

The man had given the boy a camera, so he could take pictures along the way. They made a stop in Cade’s Cove, Tennessee. The boy wandered out into a nearby field with his camera and found a rotting fence post. He raised his camera and clicked.

“It was something about the picture,” said Matt Eich, the boy behind that camera. “It’s not a great photograph, but it kind of opened up the possibility for me that a photograph could encapsulate a feeling, like the feeling of being somewhere, or of longing for something. That’s the jumping off point for me, at least, was that one mediocre landscape photograph.”

Eich, now 31, is a Charlottesville-based professional photographer and one of the recipients of a VMFA Fellowship grant for the 2017 season. His art is featured in a few familiar places around Richmond, including the Richmond International Airport.

Taking pictures since childhood while growing up in both Suffolk and Smithfield, VA, Eich continued to develop his photography skills through high school and went on to study photojournalism at Ohio University. He later earned an MFA in photography from Hartford Art School’s International Limited-Residency Program.

“I guess [I needed] some sort of artistic outlet to express what I was feeling about family, perhaps,” Eich said. “My grandmother is in some way responsible for what I do today. I never remember making a photograph of her or speaking to her about art, or anything like that, so I think of it more as like this thing that I do because I have to, being born from and witnessing their pain. My grandfather’s pain in losing his wife and my grandmother’s pain in losing her place in the world and kind of watching her memory be erased and my mother’s pain losing her mother and then losing her ability to connect with her mother before that, because of this disease.”

At Ohio University, Eich met his wife and began a project that would continue to last a lifetime. ‘Carry Me Ohio,’ which Eich has been working on for 10 years and counting, became a book last year. The project is part of a series called, ‘The Invisible Yolk,’ which like all of Eich’s projects, is a long-form, photographic essay that showcases a place and the people who occupy that place.

Although Eich prefers these long-term projects, he earns his primary income from editorial photography for newspapers. While he said this type of work can be exhausting, he continues with it because it supports his family, but can also alert him to new project ideas.

“Sometimes I come across things because I’m assigned to it, and then it developed into something that’s got a life of its own,” he said. “Other times I hear about something that interests me and makes me curious or makes me angry and I have to find out more. So photography has some connection to understanding the place I live in, the country that I call home.”

When Eich was 21, his wife gave birth to their first daughter. However, six months later Eich needed to leave for a photography internship with National Geographic. Over the course of his six-month internship, the magazine sent him to various countries such as Peru, India, and South Africa, and he only saw his daughter twice during that time.

“I was just miserable,” Eich said. “Everything that I thought I wanted coming up as a kid, like the dream of being a National Geographic photographer wandering the world, and then the stark reality was that I was just completely heartsick and homesick. […] I felt like I was just fulfilling stereotypes and kind of checking the assignment boxes that I was being asked to fill without making something meaningful that got below the surface or challenged any preconceptions about the place.”

Eich realized his dream wasn’t what he thought it was, and instead knew he needed to turn inward, move at a slower pace, and create work in which he could develop relationships and find individual storylines with his subjects.

“It boils down to meeting somebody that I really connect with, or somebody that I think is magical, on some level or another,” Eich said. “That’s the only way I can describe them.”

He has encountered many magical people along his journey, some of which he has longer-lasting relationships with than a simple passing encounter. One of these people was Jessie Sellars.

“I met him at a car wash. He was washing his kids’ dirt bikes, and he was the first person to ever really open his home and his life to me,” Eich said. “[He] was just like, ‘Yeah man, just hop in the back of the truck, I’ll take you home and introduce you to the family.’ I’ve photographed his family now for 11 years and watched his kids grow up. His girls were the flower girls at my wedding. It’s the kind of thing that you can’t plan on, but occasionally you meet people that are magic.”

During the period Eich began ‘Carry Me Ohio,’ he started focusing on a concept which he calls ‘The American Condition.’ An idea he has developed for several years, it examines and illustrates what it means to be part of American culture by revealing the truth behind it–often breaking stereotypes in the process.

“Even if you haven’t been to a place like Ohio or Mississippi, you can still kind of imagine, based on what you’ve heard and seen, what the place will be like,” Eich said. “Oftentimes those stereotyped imaginings are pretty accurate, but then other times they can be vastly unfair to the people they encapsulate. Life is never as simple as a stereotype.”

‘The Invisible Yolk’ takes this concept and breaks it into four unique albums: ‘Carry Me Ohio,’ ‘Sin and Salvation’, ‘The Seven Cities,’ and ‘We, The Free.’ Each is based in a different part of the United States and offers an in-depth photographic look at the people who live there.

“I really love this country, but I feel like we have a lot of complicated legacies that we don’t want to deal with,” he said. “These things continue to echo through people’s lives. Whether it’s mass genocide of the Native American population or the way we’ve treated slaves and immigrants in our country, and to more recent, foreign meddling in other things that we dabble in as a superpower. My personal belief is that people on both sides of the political spectrum have grown disillusioned with the collapse of the American Dream. They don’t really believe anything anymore. People keep saying the Nation is more divided than ever, but this has been coming for a while. Things that have pointed to this–visual signs, let’s call them–are what I’m interested in trying to tap into.”

Aside from these larger projects, Eich has spent years photographing his own family. As his camera became part of their daily life, Eich decided he wanted to take this personal documentation and turn it into something greater. When finishing grad school, he polished this concept and turned it into the project for which he received the VMFA fellowship. It’s titled, ‘I love you, I’m leaving.’

During his parent’s separation, he began reassessing what his family meant to him, what he hoped or feared for their future, and even recalled the complicated family dynamic brought on by the death of his grandmother.

“My life is constantly defined by coming and going, because that’s what I have to do for my work,” Eich said. “I get to see things, photograph things, have some interesting life experiences, and there are some negative things like I’m gone, sometimes two weeks out of the month. I’m not regretful, but I’m concerned that I miss things, and I want to be a present father.”

The project is a series of black and white photos taken with a medium format film camera, and unlike his other projects, some of the scenes in the series are staged; However, throughout the process Eich recognized that his own family is part of ‘The American Condition’ as well.

“It’s the connection to memory–both personal memory, in the case of my grandmother, and collective memory, in the case of our country,” he said. “That’s a continuing thread, and it’s taken me many years to figure out that these projects are actually connected in some ways. I believe that photography exists because there aren’t words for everything.”

Eich has photographed everyone from governors to gangsters, with many different types of people in between. Despite his published works, he knows that a project will never quite be complete, and he continues to visit the same places and people in order to capture their essence, no matter how far away.

“Photography is a limited medium because it only deals in the surface, like what you see in front of you,” Eich explained. “What I’m interested in is more of this collective memory and the emotional resonance of the place, so I don’t want to like make a picture about how somebody cleans a chicken. I want to make a picture that lets the viewer feel how the chicken feels if his head is being chopped off, or what the farmer feels if he really loved that chicken and killed it because he had to eat it. I want you to feel something when you look at the work, and hopefully that translates into thought, as well.”

Madelyne Ashworth

Madelyne Ashworth

Madelyne is a Richmond native and staff writer at RVA Magazine, primarily covering politics and white nationalism in Virginia. She spent the past four years working and living in D.C., earning her B.A. in journalism and running to the White House every time the President sneezed. Follow her on Twitter at @madelyne_ash.




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