Local Story: Matt Eich Finds Inspiration in His Hometown and Exhibits the Work There

By Dzana Tsomondo

© Matt Eich
Josh and Amanda leaving the house on September 21, 2012, in Norfolk, Virginia. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images from "The Seven Cities."

Matt Eich was born and raised in the Tidewater region of Virginia, also known as Hampton Roads. This is a coastal community of independent cities, small towns and counties defined by the bodies of water that have shaped its long and storied history. Colonial Williamsburg might be the area’s biggest tourist draw, but the military has a deep and abiding role in Hampton Roads, past and present. From the Battle of Yorktown to the first salvo in the War of 1812 through the Civil War’s ironclad battles, the military in general and the Navy in particular are an inextricable piece of the region’s economic and social fabric. But, history lessons aside, Eich’s childhood experiences on Virginia’s coast did not leave much of an initial impression.

“I just thought of [home] as a place without much culture,” Eich says before deadpanning: “basically a bunch of strip malls.” He made his escape, heading to Ohio University in the fall of 2004. Over the next five years he found his artistic voice documenting life in America’s increasingly wide margins. Eich published a book called Carry Me Ohio, capturing desperate poverty in the ruins of America’s industrial past. In his photo series “Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town,” he explored race and class in the Mississippi Delta. By the time Eich returned to Virginia, he was married with a small child and held a degree in photojournalism. But those were not the only changes—Eich also came home with fresh eyes.

“I returned to the area after traveling around the country and seeing some of the world. I could finally appreciate my home for what it is. I could find beauty all around me, I was interested in almost everything,” Eich explains. He points, for instance, to his community’s deep relationship with the United States military bases there. “I knew that the military was important, but I didn’t know how important. I wasn’t paying attention. I would go to band practice on a military base and not think that was unusual.”

Eich’s upcoming exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is a testament to those “fresh eyes.” Entitled “The Seven Cities,” a reference to the Tidewater region, Eich’s project is a multi-location, multimedia effort to better understand and examine the place where he grew up and is now raising his own children. The ambitious exhibition features framed photographs of various sizes, a grid of images made during his wife’s pregnancy with their second child, a large collection of iPhone images and two looping projections of video art accompanied by commissioned musical pieces. One juxtaposes video portraits of Seven Cities mayors and inmates at the regional jail, and the other combines generations of Eich family home videos.

“It’s a very subjective look at [the region],” Eich admits. “It’s the places I ended up. It’s my family’s connection to this place. But beyond all that … I am [also] looking for something universal, that any viewer can derive meaning from.” The sheer scope of the exhibition means that he has relied on a team of like-minded artists from various disciplines to bring these disparate elements together. Heather Hakimzadeh, curator at MOCA, has been “instrumental,” Eich says, doing a little bit of everything in the years since he pitched her the project. Photo editor Mike Davis helped Eich whittle down thousands of images into the edit that made it onto the walls. Composer Tyler Strickland created the soundscape that links the two video pieces, which were edited by Annie Flanagan, currently a graduate student at Syracuse University, whom Eich met as an undergrad. And Eich's close friend and fellow photographer Hyunsoo Leo Kim served as the lead producer for the exhibition video installations.

The multimedia aspect of “The Seven Cities” is what Eich calls “an acknowledgement of the limitations of photographs.” As he puts it, a photo is “silent and doesn’t move,” which is part of what makes them so open to contemplation but sometimes “you want some action.” Despite the difficulty of “changing hats” in the field, Eich tries to find ways to collect audio and video when he is working. “I’m just trying to catch [viewers] off-guard, however necessary. Whether it’s using movement or sound, I am fascinated by the possibilities.”

In addition to the exhibit at MOCA in Virginia Beach, Eich has taken steps to make “The Seven Cities” even more local than it already is by arranging seven additional satellite exhibitions. Each of these will feature 81 works and act as an extension of the main exhibit. The idea was inspired by the same forces that prompted him to leave the Tidewater area after high school: “Some of these cities don’t have a museum, they don’t have galleries, they don’t have anywhere to go look at art,” Eich says “So the idea was trying to make the project accessible to the wider community.”

The homecoming aspect to having his first museum show in the Seven Cities and about the Seven Cities is not lost on Eich. Not only is he exploring subjects that are near and dear to him, but it also means he hasn’t had to leave his wife and young children behind for an extended period of time in pursuit of his goals. Additionally, it gives him an opportunity to delve further into ideas of authenticity and representation that he has been struggling with for some time.

“In my other bodies of work from Ohio and Mississippi, I’ve always had the desire to exhibit the work directly in the community as a vehicle for conversation about issues that they face,” he says. “My line of thinking has been to make the process more collaborative with the subjects and with the community, so that I can accurately portray them as they see themselves.”

Related Article:

Matt Eich Photo Gallery

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