Landscape Stories: What artist influenced the most your beginnings? Do you think your approach is close to that of other artists, contemporary or from the past?
Matt Eich: When I started making pictures, I was looking at landscape and nature photographers. At the age of 12 or so, I went to a workshop led by John Shaw in a darkened conference room of a hotel. After looking at my pictures, he gave me a bag of Kodachrome 64 film. Little bits of encouragement can go a long way. I looked at the National Geographic photographers and wanted to be Nick Nichols. Sam Abell made the first photo book I ever bought. In high school I worked in a camera store, and on a lunch break stumbled upon James Nachtwey's work from Iraq in American Photo. That helped propel me towards the decision to study photojournalism in college. I still cite Eugene Richards as the largest influence on my work. I think about Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Alec Soth often when making pictures.
Landscape Stories: Do you feel any influences from other expressive forms such as literature or music?
Matt Eich: Everything eventually filters through in the work, though I soak in a lot of music, and a bit of poetry. I always intend to read more than I do – my attention is frequently fractured between a dozen different simultaneous obligations and occurences between the personal and professional realms.
Landscape Stories: Which photographers do you turn to for inspiration? What does photography mean to you?
Matt Eich: Photography means a lot of different things to me. It is a medium through which I derive my income, but that is often the least-pleasurable aspect of it. Art and commerce don't make good playmates. So, I have to frequently remind myself of what continually draws me to the medium: a hunger for intimacy with strangers to counteract my introverted nature, a distrust of memory (personal and collective) and the compulsion to collect moments of beauty or significance from daily life.
Landscape Stories: How would you describe your photographic language and creative process? Do you have a method of working which you follow for each series, or does it vary for each different project?
Matt Eich: Every series or commission requires something a little different, but regardless of what it is for, I try to consider how I can most effectively translate an experience into visual language that has enough elasticity that the viewer needs to chew on it for a while. How can I get as physically or emotionally close as possible to someone in a limited timeframe? If I cannot bridge the gap, how can I translate the distance between two people? Photography can be a way of dismantling assumptions about a person, or a place, but it can also easily reinforce incomplete depictions, or stereotypes. I frequently struggle with the limitations of photography in terms of what I can depict and express.
Landscape Stories: How important is the narrative dimension in your work? How do you look ahead your pictures... as single shots or rather as a sequence of shots? What about the power of one photograph?
Matt Eich: I can certainly appreciate a strong single image, just like a good single song can express a lot. But the way my slow brain tends to put things together is more akin to how a musician would put together songs on an album. Usually my projects develop unconsciously at first – a thread running through disparate images or failed experiments. Eventually I awaken to the fact that I am already making something, and then I struggle to define it without limiting the work unnecessarily, or allowing it to become overly grand in scope. The images should stand on their own, but they are really intended to sing together – in harmony, or dischord, depending on the emotional tenor the work needs to strike.
Landscape Stories: How deeply are you influenced by the surroundings and places in which you grew up? To what extent is your childhood imagery still present in your photographs?
Matt Eich: I grew up in rural Southeast Virginia (places like Suffolk, Chuckatuck, and Smithfield). We were surrounded by nature, and I spent a lot of time in the woods, digging holes, looking for animals and in the company of mostly conservative rural folks. This has definitely shaped the places I am drawn to photograph. Recently I've been trying to archive these giant plastic tubs of slides, negatives and prints that my parents delivered in waves. The pictures are mostly tens of thousands of mediocre images of birds, trees, flowers (nature at-large) and family that I made from age 10-18 when I left home for college. A lot of the same threads exist in my work now – the use of animal as symbol and allegory, family, how the land shapes identity.
Landscape Stories: Referring to your work "I Love You, I'm Leaving", how does the project evolve since you start shooting? The photographs not only focus on your family and parents but also on their surroundings, and your new home. Could you describe your experience of photographing a place you have never been before?
Matt Eich: The work has certainly evolved at a lot of different junctures. It began with the early childhood photographs of my family, a sort of unconscious record-keeping, which evolved into a more compulsive documentary mode, and then during graduate school transitioned into a blend of documentary, portraiture and staged narrative. These changes in the work are hinged on my personal experience. For example, my early photographs from childhood are not very thoughtful, they're just point the camera at a loved one and snap a picture. In college, I became a father at the age of 21 and was compulsively documenting that period of time because I didn't want to "miss" any of it – everything was so fresh and new. The latest shift in my work was accompanied by the deconstruction of my work and process in a rigorous graduate school setting, while my parents separated after 33-years of marriage, my siblings had dramatic things happening in their lives, my family and I moved to a new city, and my last living grandparent passed away. All of these things happening simultaneously forced me to reconsider my approach, and what I wanted to express with the work.
Landscape Stories: How much collaboration was there in this project between you as photographer and your relatives in the images? Why is your attention often turned towards the details?
Matt Eich: A lot of the images are documentary, some with minimal intervention on my part, and some where the image is planned and discussed amongst the parties beforehand. I found myself going through periods of repeating image tropes – pictures of direct confrontation (sitter looking into the lens), pictures with eyes concealed, pictures that contain circles, pictures about death, pictures of details meant to function as symbols. On their own they are strange little repetitions, but when stitched together in a series of photographs, I am able to create little echoes and a rhythm in the work.
Landscape Stories: Did you start with a few casual portraits that you really liked, and then it evolved into a project? Or did you have a wide project in mind from the beginning?
Matt Eich: At first I was wrestling with an unfamiliar tool (the Mamiya 7) to force myself to see differently. A lot of the images were portraits of my wife and daughters. Eventually I became more comfortable with the Mamiya 7 and introduced an RB67 for closer images and slower portraits. The work really began to take shape in some images where I placed myself in the frame, and relinquished control of the image by asking someone else to trip the shutter. When I started the work, I didn't know that my parents would separate, that my family would move, or that my grandfather would die during the course of the work.
Landscape Stories: Please could you tell us something more about the creation of your ongoing project "Say Hello to Everybody, OK?". How the project started?
Matt Eich: In 2014 I started graduate studies and began the transition from shooting mostly digital to shooting more film. That fall I went on a road trip with a friend of mine, a young photographer named Ian C. Bates, where we drove across the country. I tried a lot of different things and most of them failed. But some of the images resonated, and kept resurfacing. The newer voice I was applying to my family work started to bleed into my work about America, as Trump rolled towards the presidency. My anxiety about my country continued to build and gain more urgency. I am continuing to make this work throughout the duration of his presidency, whether it ends in 2020 or 2024. My plan is to conclude The Invisible Yoke series in 2020, and then follow that work with Say Hello to Everybody, OK? at the conclusion of Trump's time in office.
Landscape Stories: How did "Carry Me Ohio" begin? Why did you start working on this and how did you first find the people you worked with? Could you tell us about your approach with people?
Matt Eich: Carry Me Ohio began in 2006, when I was 19-years-old and studying photojournalism at Ohio University. We were assigned a "picture story" project, and I latched onto one nearby village called Chauncey (pronounced Chance-y). In this place I found two families that accepted me into their daily lives, and allowed me to come and go with my camera. One family I photographed from 2006-2012, the other family I continue to photograph today, more than 12 years after we first met. Similar to my other projects, initially I did not know that all these disparate pieces I was gathering would connect. This project continued in different shapes and forms throughout my time at Ohio University, and I returned to make more work after we moved from Ohio in 2009. In all, the work spans ten years from 2006-2016. The book was published by Sturm & Drang in the fall of 2016 and quickly sold out. Trump had just been elected; people suddenly wanted to understand disenfranchised white voters from America's heartland. I try to approach everyone with an open heart and meet them where they are, which is to say, to view them without judgment, even if we don't necessarily see eye-to-eye on everything.
Landscape Stories: Teaching Photography: to what extent is it possible to teach photography? Any advice for students currently studying?
Matt Eich: I studied photojournalism in undergraduate, and received an MFA in photography. It always felt like a poor move to get two degrees in the same field, especially when it is so difficult to make a living with photography. But it's all I know, and I wanted to know more. It is possible to teach technical aspects of the craft, but as an instructor I cannot teach passion, drive, practice, or the ability to see. All I can try to do is awaken what already exists within certain students, and help provide guidance towards their creative goals. I still need to do a lot of growing, as an artist and as an educator. My advice for those currently studying photography (or anything for that matter) is to draw everything you can out of your professor and your classmates by being inquisitive and hungry. Realize that everything has already been done, so study the artists that have come before you in an effort to better understand where your work fits within the larger canon of fine art and visual language.
Landscape Stories: Which photo books would you choose from your library and why?
Matt Eich: This is a hard one – I'm constantly acquiring books, and sometimes (I hate to admit) they land on the shelf and don't get looked at for a while. Of the books that I will regularly pull off the shelf, it is works like Winterreise by Luc Delahaye, Tranquility by Heikki Kaski, and anything by Larry Sultan, Mark Steinmetz, Eugene Richards, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Mary Frey, Elinor Carucci and Carolyn Drake. Recent acquisitions that I have really enjoyed include Sam Contis' Deep Springs, M.L. Casteel's American Interiors, Max Pinckers Margins of Excess, Morgan Ashcom's What The Living Carry and others.
Landscape Stories: What's your plans for the near future?
Matt Eich: Recently I concluded my first year of teaching photography, so at the moment, I am trying to catch up on everything that fell by the wayside these past few months. As I write this, I am on a train to Washington, D.C. where I will print a solo exhibition for Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town, the next monograph in The Invisible Yoke series, which is due out this fall with Sturm & Drang. I have several solo shows this summer and fall that I am getting ready for while preparing files and text for the book. I continue to accept editorial and commercial commissions, write grant proposals, and make work towards my personal projects whenever possible. This fall I am scheduled to teach again, and next summer I have a Rauschenberg Residency in Florida. I am excited to have some time to think about work, and to put some of the puzzle pieces together. Aside from the professional life, I am a father of two small children and I am simply trying to be home more often to enjoy time with them while they still want to spend time with me. I desperately want to find a place where I can put down roots, raise my family, make my work and lead a quiet life. This seems increasingly difficult, but nothing worthwhile was ever easy.
Interview curated by Gianpaolo Arena