Matt Eich (b. 1986) is a photographic essayist and portrait photographer born and based in Virginia. He holds a BS in Photojournalism from Ohio University and is currently pursuing his MFA in Photography from Hartford Art School’s International Limited-Residency Program. Eich recently relocated to Charlottesville, Virginia with his family and continues to accept commissions of all kinds while working on long-form photographic essays about the American condition
AB: Hey Matt, can you introduce yourself and tell us about your background and when you became a photographer?
ME: I am an independent photographer living in Virginia. I started making pictures when I was a kid, maybe 10 years old, and this is my language for communicating an array of complex thoughts and feelings to the world. I studied photojournalism at Ohio University from 2004-2008 and started working as a freelance photographer in 2005, for my local newspaper. As tough as it has been, it is hard to believe I’ve been doing this for ten years … it feels like I’ve gotten away with something. My clients are mostly editorial outlets like National Geographic, TIME, The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, Wired and others with the occasional commercial client like Apple, Tiffany & Company or Republic Records. I exhibit my work and self-publish books and zines. Currently I am enrolled in the Hartford Art School International Limited Residency Program pursuing an MFA in photography.
AB: What drives you to make your work today?
ME: There are many forces that drive me to make work today. At the root is the distrust of memory, both personal and collective. Sometimes I make work for money (though not as often as I’d like) but oftentimes when working for myself it is a directionless pursuit driven by questions. Questions always give birth to more questions. Photographs are incapable of providing the answers we desire, but that just feeds my curiosity.
AB: Tell us about your project The Invisible Yoke. Where does the name come from?
ME: The “yoke” refers to a harness or weight that ties working animals together, like mules or oxen, but in the case of my photographs I am referring to the invisible weight of memory on the American collective consciousness. In some ways our memory can hold us back, it can build barriers and can be found at the root of stereotypes that exist to turn neighbor into the “other.” But we also have to remember where we came from and the mistakes we have made in order to keep from repeating them. The yoke connects us. It’s a tricky balance. We tend to have a short national memory and would readily prefer to forget the sins we are all complicit in, within our own borders and outside of them.
AB: What was your access to the people and places you photographed? Did you have a personal connection to any of these places before photographing them?
ME: In Ohio I lived in the region I photographed from 2006-2009 and after moving would return on occasion to catch up with people. In Mississippi I was sent there on an assignment and felt drawn to the place so I kept returning and building relationships. In Virginia, I grew up around here and photograph my family and my community. When I’m traveling I usually don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it. Personal connections are built over time and repeated visits and my relationships with all of these people and places evolve as the projects progress.
AB: What questions did you intend to pose and what questions arrived after the work was made?
ME: In nearly ten years of wandering America and entering people’s communities and homes I have become familiar with a discontent or malaise that is rampant and insidious. It is something that Frank and Winograd channeled in their work from 50 years ago, but I’d prefer not to parrot what they have created, rather use it as a springboard. At some point in our recent history the illusion that we are better than everyone else has started to crumble, though there is still a core part of our country that seem to believe that our comfort is worth any amount of global chaos we may cause. The questions that eat at me vary place by place … in Ohio I wonder how extractive industry ever served to support an important part of our nation’s economy and I question how hardscrabble people will cling to home even though there is nothing there for them. In Mississippi I question how segregation and racism create a collision of poverty, crime and violence in communities that have limited access to education and opportunity. In Virginia I question how basing a region’s economy on the military industrial complex is sustainable. As I drive the highways and byways of our weird and wonderful country I wonder about my daughters, and the future that is out there for them. What will their America look like? Photographs seem incapable of answers, at best they only spawn more questions.
AB: The Invisible Yoke is an extensive collection of photographs, what is your plan for the work as a whole?
ME: The work and ideas behind The Invisible Yoke will continue to evolve in the years to come but I am beginning to roll it out in book form, piece by piece, starting with Volume One, “Carry Me Ohio” next year with Swiss publisher Sturm & Drang. The idea is to release four books over the course of four or five years to create a box set about microcosms of the American experience. Hopefully there will be exhibitions and other publications of the work along the way. In the meanwhile, I’ll continue making new pictures whenever possible and digging deeper into the specific chapters in Ohio, Mississippi, Virginia and, my personal favorite, wandering this weird and wonderful country of ours.
To view more of Matt’s work, please visit his website.