Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Matt Eich interview - Part A

© Matt Eich

Richmond, VA: Love's ghost.

Please read Matt's bio and see his images.

Daniel Berman, a high school student in Seattle, asks,
"1) Which photographers consistently seem to inspire you?"
That's a hard question. Before I got into photography, I was really into music. The thing among people who listen to a lot of music if somebody asks what's your favorite band, and you'd say, "Well, this week it's so-and-so."

It's kind of like that with photography. It comes and goes and depends on my mood. Eugene Richards is someone who's always inspired me ever since I first saw his stuff. The same for [Antonin] Kratochvil. Recently, I've been really into Alec Soth's work. He's got a different way of seeing that's really cool.

Even among my classmates here at Ohio. I'm just consistently amazed by the stuff they're cranking out. So I think it's even more inspiring to have someone here that you can talk to and relate to and understand what they're going through and what they're thinking with their photographs rather than some far-off photo figure, who's publishing books and is old enough to be your father.
"2) What do you feel has been the best help to you in developing a personal vision?"
Personal vision is one of those finicky things that comes and goes. Sometimes you feel like you're saying something with [style]. Sometimes you feel like you aren't saying anything.

I never really thought about it. It just happened.

I guess it's a question of how you feel when you're shooting oftentimes. I've noticed the style and the personal vision attached to any specific photo really varies on how I'm reacting to a scene.

If I'm feeling really deeply for the person in front of me, it's going to look a lot different than if it's someone who really rubs me the wrong way or comes off as arrogant or something like that. I try to pick up on people's personality traits and photograph them accordingly.

So, I think style is an evolving thing, and I hope I grow into it to some extent, but not to the point where it becomes formulaic. I want it to always be something that's growing and evolving with what I'm shooting and, at the same time, I feel like I need to be respectful of my subjects and not let the personal vision or style overpower what they're trying to say.

One project I've been working on for a while is on this town called Chauncey, Ohio. I really tried to simplify my style when I was shooting there. I was trying to make it so it was just the subjects coming through and it wasn't my input. So I would see less of me in the photographs and more of them.

The more I shot, the more people kept saying, "I see you're finding your style." (laughs) That was not at all what I was going for there. So, it comes when you're least looking for it. It's not something I've actively pursued.
Marie Freeman, a pro in North Carolina, stated:
"Wow. Love his sense of balance in all of his portraits."
Please talk some about balance.

In portrait situations, I try to walk in and figure out what's going to contribute and what's going to detract from the portrait. What it's about. I try to make it pretty clean generally, but at the same time say what I need to say about the subject. Of course light plays a factor in all that.

I feel like that's mostly what I've been doing for freelance lately is portraiture work in one sense or another. What one person told me when I was looking for advice was, "Everything is a portrait. If there's a person in there, it's a portrait. It doesn't matter if it's posed or not." That kind of clicked with me and made sense.

Even documentary work you need to treat with the same respect as you would with a portrait where you're sitting down and talking with this person. It doesn't mean you're posing it or setting it up. It just means you're trying to get as close and personal as you can with this individual.
You played piano for 12 years as well as learning guitar and drums. Talk some about the relationship you see between music and photography.
Growing up, music was a really important part of my life because it was a means of self expression. There came a point where I had to choose between music and photography. All throughout high school, music was a way I connected with my peers. We'd play in bands together. We'd go play shows. We'd go see shows. We'd talk about music. It was a way of relating to people.

Photography was something that nobody I was hanging out with was into. So, it was an odd choice, but I felt I could articulate myself better through photography. I felt I really wanted to do something that was about the people, about social issues, for a career. I felt photography would be a better shot at that as opposed to music.

It's really easy in any art form to get caught up in the "I'm an artists. I'm creative." However, it seems easy to get stuck in that rut if you're playing music - at least in the scene I was growing up in. That was something I wanted to avoid.
Did you cultivate talents to apply directly to photography?
Definitely. A lot in editing. I try to think of a story or essay as a song. So, it's got to have a beginning and climax at different points along the way. Most of the time when I'm editing, I'm listening to music. I'm trying to think if this is slow. Is there something that throws it off. Is there a dissonant note in there somewhere that's going to really sink the ship.

Then there's timing when you're shooting as well.

Playing in bands taught me a lot about working with a group of people, which seems to play out more in the newsroom. Photography can be a lone wolf activity a lot of times. But that experience, trying to interact with a group of people and saying, "Do you like this? Do you like that? How can we make this work?"

That helps in some aspects of photography. The group mentality.
What's Emo-rock?
(Laughs) Emo stands for emotional. It was a term coined back in the 90s at some point. Sunny Day Real Estate were really foundational in that. It was defined by groups that would get up on stage and start crying and screaming and doing emotional things. They get kind of overcome with their music.

It became really trendy a couple of years back. It burned out. It's kind of a big joke now. It had some offshoots like emo-core that was harder stuff, it was closer to metal. It's generally pretty melodies, but really sad, depressing lyrics.

It also became a style in terms of the way people dress. That was a big part of the music scene when I was growing up. So I guess it's something I've kind of carried with me throughout school. Like those kids that grew up during the hair-metal stages in the 80s that never quite got over that. I guess I'm kind of like that way with the Emo-rock thing. I don't listen to it as much anymore. I've grown out of that phase, but it is a joke here in the photo program.
Do you still have a band?
I haven't really been part of a band in a while. The first year I was in college, I'd go home and work on a solo project with a friend of mine. Just recording stuff, but it never amounted to anything. I still like jamming with friends. Both of my younger sisters are really musical, so they always want to play music when I get back home.

It's always a release. That's a part of me. I can't really push away even if I get caught up in photography. There's only so much that I can let out with pictures. Music seems to complete the circle.

Whenever I get home and there's a piano there, I can sit down and mellow out. It's always therapeutic.
What do you think about performer's rights-grab contracts?
I don't shoot many concerts. If I'm going, I try to enjoy the music. I've shot a couple of freelance gigs and never ran into any rights-grab things.

What are the current PJ educational trends at Ohio University?
It really depends on the instructor. They come from varied backgrounds. Some are old AP shooters, some are editors, a couple of them worked for Geographic back in the day, that kind of thing.

They really push. Their faculty members, specifically Bruce Strong, who's been a huge mentor for me since I've been here, and Stan Alost, who was the professor last winter when I shot most of the stuff in my portfolio right now, have a knack for taking it beyond the technical and pushing it into more of an emotional realm. Like, "How are you responding, reacting to this and that? How do you feel? How does that affect what you're shooting?"

Everybody responds in different ways. Some people look at photography as a mathematical formula. Add good focus and good exposure and good this and that and you'll have a good picture. But, most of the professors here are very accepting of style. They want to understand what's making you - as an individual - tick. They want to push you in that capacity.

They're willing to sit down with you outside of class and say, "How is life? What are you going through? This is what you've been shooting. I think you could improve it this way."

Stan's really good about not handing anything to you. He'll sit down, and he'll say something completely off the wall that makes you really confused. You have to go and decipher what he says and then shoot something and turn it in to him.

It's a lot to do with the faculty and a lot to do with the fact that they have a lot of good students all in one place. It's a photo community. We all go out and hang out together outside of class. We're editing one another's work non-stop. When we go out to the movies, you see 10 people walk into the movie theater with their cameras. We're always taking pictures. It's the photographic life in this community that's lived out.
Is the community accepting?
It really is. It's strange, the program's been around here for so long and everything's been photographed at least once or twice. Still, people go back and shoot the same thing over and over and over again. People just go, "It's this year's batch." (laughs).

There's been a couple of cases as the years have gone on that somebody's rubbed someone the wrong way and no photographers are accepted in those specific locations anymore. But, that's kind of few and far between.
How does access compare to Virginia?
When I've been there, I've been freelancing for The Virginia Pilot, which has a really good reputation. So everybody is really accepting as well. But, they do understand you're shooting for a publication where as when you're at school they're like "Oh it's for a class. We're helping you pass. You're being studious."

There is a different acceptance and a different vibe they get off of you depending on what the motive behind your work is.
Are wet darkroom techniques still taught?
It's an elective now actually. My class was the last one required to take the darkroom class. Kind of depressing.
Is video or other technologies taught?
They're starting to explore that. Bruce Strong is teaching one of the classes, and they have audio. They've got multimedia as a separate track. They encourage people to take multimedia classes as electives at this point. I think soon they'll instill a certain amount of multimedia classes that are required because most jobs are looking for that.

I think that's something very few schools have a grasp on. Some places obviously do more than others, but OU is still experimenting with it to see what works and what doesn't. I think they're rewriting the curriculum for next year.
Are journalism writing courses required?
We're not in the School of Journalism. It's a separate school. The school is Visual Communication, but we take classes with the journalism school. This last quarter I took news writing. Before that, we took a grammar class - basically - and a few other things are required. News gathering. Those are all requirements for graduation.
Do you see writing as important?
I really do. It's something that adds a lot of weight to your work. If you can't articulate the purpose behind it, then it's hard to justify it.

My style of writing isn't like AP journalism. I tend to relate more to Eugene Richards work in Dorchester Days, where it was observations and his thoughts and feelings on things as he photographed them.

One way or another, you need to combine the two to get the maximum impact out of your work.
You said if money and time weren't issues, you would visually tackle large-scale social problems. What's your eventual goal and dream circumstance?
That's a hard question, because - from my standpoint as a student in a state of flux - a lot of photojournalism outlets and editorial publications are cutting back on that kind of stuff. It seems like to make ends meet, you need to do commercial work. You need to do advertising. You've got to do stuff that really doesn't matter, or you may (laughs) be opposed to even.

[You could be] shooting for huge corporations that you don't necessarily want to support just to put food on the table, and then doing what you want on the side. I'm trying to find a balance.

I've been really drawn to the rural issues surrounding the school because a lot of the student body is completely unaware that five miles down the road is one of the most impoverished places in the state. Everybody is in a bubble here.

That's something that makes me painfully aware of all the things going on around us. I know that's just a small facet of the problems going on.

I really want to explore that in my time here. Just see where things lead me from there. I don't have any huge aspirations as to a project I'd like to do right now other than photograph the stuff around here.

I'd like to do documentary work. That's where my heart is, but not where the living is. It's the way it's looking right now.
Applied for grants?
Yes. I've applied for a couple of things, but grants are a whole different ballgame. That's something they haven't been teaching yet in the classes here. I don't know if [it] will come later in the curriculum or it's something you've just got to do on the side.

That seems to be the best way to get funding. At this point, you're not going to call up a magazine as often anymore. (laughs) "Hey, I've got this project I want to do. You can send out a writer, and you can send some money while you're at it." It doesn't seem to be going that way from what I'm seeing.

I'm just trying to figure out what channels you have to go through to get work done.
You have an interest in poverty. Do any of the poor folks tell you they want your "job?"
There's a lot of people that express an interest in... like "That's a cool camera." Or, "Man it must be neat to just go wander around."

Very few say, "I really, really want to do this." They just seem content living and interested in doing their own thing. I think some of them think it's not something they could do. They're not really brought up to be artistically inclined or to think outside of the box. They think, "Well, my dad did this. I'm going to do this too. It seems like it's doable. If he can do it, I can do it."

That's one thing Oscar Lewis wrote about poverty and the culture of poverty. He was saying the culture of poverty is really when you're unable to relate to the fact there's other people outside of your living situation in the same boat as you. He was talking about how you may be desperately poor, but a lot of the culture of poverty is in your head, and it's what you think you can do.

A lot of these people don't think they can ever break out of it. They don't have any interest in it.

So, I don't get asked very much, "How could I do this or how could I do that?"
Since most PJs are digital now, do you think photography is becoming only for the wealthy?
I think digital is becoming more economical. One of the problems with it is (somebody) said, it's less suffering for your craft. You shoot photos. It used to be that you had to develop them and hang them to dry and print them and you stank of Dektol and all these things. Now, you've got a computer. You've got a camera. It's putting photography in the hands of the public so it's making it more accessible, which a lot of people perceive as taking away the need for photojournalism.

Reuters recently had something about accepting open submissions from the general public for work they shoot, which has its issues.

While it's expensive now, it's going to keep coming down in price. Because it's the standard now.

They seem to keep knocking down the D-50s and the Rebels and stuff into more affordable ranges, but it's still pricey. I always shutter when someone says, "How much did that thing cost?"

(laughs) I tell them the truth, "I had to take out a student loan to get this thing," and they're like "Ohhh, OK."

It is difficult because there's a lot of kids I meet that have something special that could do it, but they can't afford it. I've been photographing these deaf twins out in Chauncey, and they're only 5, but every time I walk in there, they're super sharp. They've figured out how to turn on my camera. They can take a picture. They can turn on the screen on the back. They can look at the picture.

I feel like because they can't hear, they've got a heightened visual awareness. That's the entire world to them is what they see and what they feel. It's really cool to see how they respond to being able to take pictures.

I've been really curious as to what would happen if someone gave them a camera and let them go and do their thing. (sighs) That's probably something out of their grasp for now.
I noticed your style is very loose. You use a lot of space, layers and limited depth of field. How did you develop this style?
I think it really depends on the outlet. I interned with The Orange County Register, which was a great learning experience. It was the only internship I've had thus far. I quickly learned there what was going to fly and what wasn't. I had to realize this is how I shoot and I'm going to shoot this way - one way or another - but this is what they want. So, I've got to give them both.

I'd shoot what they were going to publish. Then, I'd shoot what I was going to keep. Of all the photos from the internship that ended up in my portfolio, not one of them got published while I was still there.

I was strangely OK with that. It's just a question of being happy taking pictures that you're proud of to some extent. There's other outlets for work like A Photo A Day, Melissa Lyttle's online list serve. It's really accepting of anything you want to do as long as it's not too off the wall I guess. That's been a huge part of growth as well. Everybody on there is pretty cool and laid back and willing to offer feedback.

It's grown so much. It's like a social club now when everybody sends photos every now and then. The old crew has been really supportive of what I've been trying to do. Then, the faculty here and all my classmates. Even if we have different ways of seeing things and different styles, we become familiar with the way one another approaches things and go from there.

I tend to shoot more toward the magazine style. I think back to one of the first times I walked into the office of The Virginian Pilot, which is my hometown newspaper, and Chris Tyree was like, "I'm looking at your pictures here, and I'm thinking you're never going to work for a newspaper."

At that point in time, I thought that's all there was in the world, and I was a little hurt by it. But, I realized I guess I could take pictures for a magazine, or I could do something else. If the newspapers don't like my pictures, maybe someone else will.

It's been a journey of trying to shoot what the editor needs and shoot what the audience is going to benefit from and shoot whatever else I can. One of the editors at The Register joked on me. He was like, "Are you ADD or OCD or anything? Because you come back and you've shot everything from the flowers over there to the (laughs) rally we sent you to photograph. Some graphic silhouette of something that just doesn't make any sense to me, and I can't figure out where to go with this. As long as you give me the pictures I want, I don't care what you do."

You also have many "faceless" images. How do you determine when someone gets a face or not?
(laughs) That's a good question too. I guess it depends - in theory - the way I'd like to think of it is what they're saying with their body language if a face is going to distract from that.

The opening image of the portfolio on the Web site is of this guy Battle Loc lifting weights. He's gritting his teeth. It's got some tension and aggression to it. I felt like if I showed his eyes that would take away from the teeth and the muscles and the shapes in there. So, I just shot it cropped like that.
How about the pool table image?
I was trying to make it about the shapes. The lines of the pool cues and stuff. Generally, when somebody asks who are your influences, you list off this well-worn list of professionals everybody knows, but I'm really deeply influenced by a lot of my classmates.

One of my friends here, Noah Devereaux, is a really graphic shooter. We joke on him all the time because he shoots straight lines. That's what he does. I think some of that influence comes through in some of those images. That one in particular.
You have British awards and publications. How did this happen?
The England connection is through the Ian Parry Award. I got a commendation for a project on Chauncey. In the proposal, I focused on the youth in Chauncey.

I went over there in August. I spent about a week there just visiting with editors because they published some of the [award] images.
That's an assignment for The Fader magazine. She was a musician that was over there. So, I picked up that assignment while I was over there to try to make ends meet.

Her name is Emily Haines. She a singer for a band called Metric. She just put out a solo release.

The Fader magazine has been really supportive of my work too. The director found me while I was out in California and gave me some cool gigs. I got to go down to Puerto Rico for them this summer for two or three days and shot some stuff over in London and all around the country during the summer.
What did the Eddie Adams Workshop do for you?
The Eddie Adams Workshop was like a birth. It was a great experience to meet a whole bunch of people all at once that just blew my mind. I had some amazing teammates, some of which I've kept really close friendships with outside of the workshop. We kept in touch and kept sending work to one another. We hang out whenever we meet up at other photo seminars and stuff.

It's just a really concentrated group of professionals and very inspiring people all in one place at one time. I think most anybody that goes would say it's kind of a spiritual experience.

You're totally saturated with photography from the time you get up until the time you go to bed. You're dreaming about it when you're asleep (laughs) because you maybe get 10 minutes of sleep a night. Then you get up, and you've got to do the same thing the next day.

That aspect hugely motivated [me]. I got the Nikon Achievement Scholarship while I was there. That helped open some doors. It also helped me pay for school that year, so it was helpful as well.
What about the award helped?
It's got a pretty decent reputation along with it. Photography is one of those strange things where awards open doors. It's not necessarily a game we all like to play, but it does help push things forward.

After that, one of my professors e-mailed the DOP out at The Register. People tend to respond to that. If they were considering your work before, they're like "Oh somebody else likes his work."

I don't know if it's a reaffirming thing - I'm not an editor. It does allow you to make it into places that you wouldn't otherwise.

Please see Part B of this interview.

Enough for now,

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