Matt Eich: The Seven Cities

I love to feature other photographers here on the old Smogranch, especially when the photographer happens to be a cool guy. Luckily, there are a few cool photographers running around and I would put Matt Eich in that category. Matt and I met a few years ago during a Blurb event and have remained in contact since. Matt is a very easy person to be around, which in my experience is one of the best characteristics to have when doing the kind of work he does. One look at the amount of work, and quality of work, he has been able to produce in such a short time is all the evidence we need to indicate he knows what he is doing when he puts the camera to his eye, and perhaps more importantly evidence that he knows what he is doing BEFORE he puts the camera to his eye. The New York Times is in agreement. This is their post from earlier this week.

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Many younger photographers, especially of the photojournalism persuasion, have a tendency to think they need to make a name by boarding a plane and finding the nearest war. I understand this urge, felt it myself at one point, and also understand that this ritual is a historical rite of passage experienced by many of the most famous of our ilk. But at the same time I have a great appreciation for photographers, journalists, artists who choose to focus on what is happening outside of their backdoor. This route doesn’t suffer from the romance of war, of action, nor does it ring out at a cocktail party, but what it does do is instantly separate the pretenders from those who can really swing the visual timber so to speak. Working at home isn’t flashy and the content doesn’t surround you. As a photographer you have to learn to hunt. You have to learn to look beyond what you already know, what you already take for granted and see things with new eyes.

"The Seven Cities"

I also think it can be a much tougher road to sell work from home for precisely these same reasons. Young editors with budget conscious minds are quick to pounce on flashy, shiny things and perhaps not so quick to pounce on a hard look at the homefront. So why do it? Well, you have to ask Matt. I’ve compiled a few questions for him, which he was kind enough to answer. I could have asked many more, but time is of the essence my friends. Matt is crowd-funding this project via Emphas.is which means if any of you are so inclined you can, in a way, become a part of the project by pledging your support. He is also working on an exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.

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I preach to people all the time that the traditional models of information exchange are somewhat broken. Now is the time to reinvent, make original work and deliver it in original ways. This leads me to another reason why I’m doing this feature. What a photographer does before and after the actual picture making, in some strange way, can be the most important part of the equation. In essence, what these times do is define what the real goal is. Matt has always been a searcher in terms of seeking alternative means of delivery and of finding ways to get the people in the photographs involved. This might sound like an “of course” moment, but don’t fool yourself. This really isn’t what our industry is about. It’s A LOT harder to do than you might imagine. So, I give credit to those who are seeking to engage not just with the gallery world but with the world of those being covered.

"The Seven Cities"

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And for those of you vid-heads, yes there is a short film detailing the project. This is in case you are too lazy to read the interview…. There is another point I want to make, a point which might seem like nothing, but I want to make this painfully clear. Each image you see here is representative of SO MUCH more than the final photograph. Each image has a life of its own, and a story and backstory of its own. The amount of work required to make most of these images often times gets completely overlooked. First you have to find people. Then you have to explain yourself. Then you have to get permission. They you have to return, over and over and WAIT for things to happen. There is so much that can go wrong, so much that can change. Often times it takes days, weeks, months to get what you are looking for. This is real reportage, which is akin to the albino buffalo, RAPIDLY DISAPPEARING. I just looked through a catalog from an art photography festival and saw exactly ONE real reportage image in the entire catalog.

What this translates to is you don’t do this work unless you REALLY want to do it. The shallow divers shoot portrait series, the urban abstract landscape, or friends at a party in their underwear. Personally, when I see Matt’s images they force me to reflect on a variety of things. They force me to think about America, industry, normalicy, war, unease, family, history and the fleeting moments of lives both familiar and unfamiliar, but they also force me to reflect on trying moments of my own, in the field making pictures. Like last weekend when I drove 850 miles and shot 5 rolls of film. But, alas, there is such reward in the “failures” we must endure.

There is a lot of work out there in the cyberworld, but I suggest you have a look, have a listen and also take a peak at Matt’s site. The interview is below. Until next time….

ONE: In three sentences or less, what is this project about?

This project is about my home along the coast of Virginia, where I was raised and now raise my own children. I am interested in the military industrial complex and how it influences the community in subtle ways through our region’s economic dependence. Simultaneously I am documenting my own family and daily life in the various cities: these images will be displayed side-by-side at The Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art in the fall of 2013.

TWO: I see a lot of crowd-funded projects out there. Why should people care about this one?

Great question. While there isn’t some dramatic keyword at the center of this project like POVERTY or RACE, this body of work will be rooted in a social consciousness that I have never applied to my home. I am trying to see this place like no one has before, and share the experience directly with the community I am documenting in the process. The prospect of being totally vulnerable with an audience about the realities of making this work is daunting, but exciting at the same time. For the audience, it is an opportunity to see an artist at work in a pretty intimate way, before the work ever makes it to the walls of the museum.

THREE: You seem like a guy who is always looking for a new way to do things. Was it an easy or difficult decision to attempt to crowd-fund this?

If there’s a reason for always looking for a new way to do things, it’s because I don’t feel I’ve found a way to consistently support my family and my personal work. It was an easy decision to attempt to crowd-fund it, but the actual crowd-funding part is difficult. I say it was an easy decision to make because now is the perfect time for me to engage an audience in the project as I am beginning to produce a lot of new work. My experience crowd-funding a small piece of the Baptist Town project was really rewarding, I would love to try it again with my own community where I can receive feedback from people about what their reality is.

FOUR: What is the ultimate goal and what is the ultimate delivery vehicle for this project?

The ultimate goal is to feel satisfied in what can only be a brief overview of the region at this point in history. Aspiring to much beyond that could take decades. The ultimate vehicle is the exhibition at The Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art this fall, along with seven (7) satellite exhibitions in the various communities to make it more accessible to a wider audience. Also, I hope to have a website to house the stills, sound and motion, and also a portal for the community to upload their own images and stories. This will allow the project to live on and continue after I have completed it for the purposes of the exhibition.

FIVE: So many young photojournalists seem to think they need to be on the frontline somewhere. Why do you focus so much on domestic stories and do you think this has affected your career in a positive or negative way?
It’s hard to say, honestly, because this is all I’ve experienced. There’s a lot of romanticism tied up in the war photographer image, and we all get a bit smitten by that at times, but I try to be realistic. I struggle to make a living as a freelance photographer doing domestic work, and I know international conflict photographers who aren’t better off financially. So why should I go risk my ass for a poor-paying picture while I’ve got a wife and kids at home? What’s more, in my brief international travels, I worried that I was just parachuting in and not really getting to know the people or the story. If I can’t understand my own country, why should I go somewhere else and pretend like I understand them? This realization pushed me to focus on domestic work. I’m not sure how that has affected my career, but I appreciate that getting shot at isn’t part of my day-to-day.

SIX: You are still a young guy, but have you seen any changes in the way your subjects view you as a photographer in the age of instant sharing and everyone having their own camera (phone) in hand?

Yeah, people definitely respond with a certain amount of media (or social media) savvy. These days more often I’ll hear, “Yo, Facebook that shit” or “Instagram me!” It’s interesting to me that this can be a bit of an equalizer, if we all have this tool (a phone) with about the same capabilities and limitations. It’s created it’s own little visual language very rapidly, and the social media platforms offer a fascinating way to engage a community and disseminate your work. I’ve been using Instagram for the last year or so (@MattEich) and have sent more than 450 mobile dispatches for The Seven Cities project, which has been hashtagged #TheSevenCities.

SEVEN: Is documentary photography easier now than it was when you began your career?
Hahaha. Do you mean easier now that there are student loans to pay and two kids to feed? I can say that documentary photography is just as unpredictable now as it was when I started.

EIGHT: Time is of the essence these days. Are your timelines getting shorter or being extended? When I first began in photography documentary projects were judged in years not weeks. How much time have you spent on this, and ideally how much additional time would you spend if you didn’t have limitations?

For assignments my timelines are always restricted, which is why I crave the personal work, so that I can devote the time necessary to a more nuanced idea. The images from this project span as far back as 2005, but most of the work will be from 2009 – 2013. If I am able to successfully fund the Emphas.is campaign that will allow for about two months where I could leave the studio and just be out in the community, meeting people, gathering content and building the framework for the project. Ideally, I would spend several days each week between now and the end of June dedicated solely to making images. The only way to do that though, is to have the bills paid.

NINE: How do you know when a project like this is done?

Typically, that is a hard question. For this, the project has a built-in stop date when the show needs to be printed, framed and hung on the walls. That said, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about the work at that point in time, so I might continue it for the remainder of our stay in the Tidewater region if there are gaps that need to be filled.

TEN: Do you think traditional channels (editorial) for this type of work are still viable, or is it better to look outside photography and into things like fine-art?

My conclusion so far is that none of the traditional channels are viable on their own, and that diversifying is the only way to survive. Even then, it seems to require a minor miracle.

ELEVEN: What is the strangest thing that has happened to you on this project?

I hope the strangest thing(s) have yet to happen. One of the coolest things that I’ve been able to do as part of the project was a pre-dawn helicopter flight that put me on the deck of the USS Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear aircraft carrier, as it made its final homecoming after its 25th deployment.

2 responses to “Matt Eich: The Seven Cities”

  1. Paul Gero says:

    I’ve always enjoyed his work since his days here in the OC as an intern at the Register….you could tell he had an eye even back then.

  2. mike a says:

    I am still amazed by Matt’s work in Baptist Town, he is so talented.

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