American Lens
Eich photography reveals realistic view of struggling, Deep South, African American town
by Betsy DiJulio
Veer Magazine 02/15/11

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but big-time, award-winning Norfolk-based freelance photographer Matt Eich’s words are almost as compelling as his images or, at least, they work hand-in-hand to tell stories, offer insights, and raise a host of often uncomfortable questions.

In the first part of his on-going project, “Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town”—shot between April and November 2010--those narratives, truths and inquiries weave through and wrap around the residents of an impoverished African-American community in Greenwood, MS.  Ironically, this historic blues town, not too far from Memphis, TN, is the corporate headquarters of Viking, makers of high-end commercial ranges for residential kitchens, and The Alluvian Hotel, a Conde-Nast touted, Triple-A, 4 Diamond chic boutique property (where I have actually stayed once).  Later this year, the second part of Eich’s series will delve deeper into disparities of race, class, and community identity through an exploration of Greenwood’s affluent white community because, like so many American cities and towns, this one is a study in dramatic contrasts.

  One of the inescapable questions that surfaces in the face of Eich’s body of work, especially when viewing the more intimate of his images, is how a 24-year-old “white boy” was able to infiltrate this community with his camera, earning the trust and even the friendship of Baptist Town’s toughest denizens who, it is safe to say, view Caucasians against a backdrop of “fear, distrust, and a history of exploitation.”   The answer lies, in part, on Eich’s blog where his illustrated posts, written in conversational, compassionate and human, but keenly intelligent, prose chronicle his deepening ties to these people and the flow of their intertwined lives.  His respectful acceptance, absent of judgment—he neither condemns not condones—is not to be missed.

With 90% of Baptist Town’s 500 residents unemployed and living a marginal financial existence, hard-core crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and hopelessness—the stuff of which statistics are made—exist shoulder-to-shoulder with resilience and the strong bonds of family and friendship.  As Eich philosophically observed “They are neither good nor evil.  They are simply human.”

At their best, the images in this show are artful.  Beautifully composed, cropped and colored, they tell enough of the story to engage us, but allow us to take our own interpretive journeys.  However, there are also a few at the other end of the spectrum.  These seem almost like documentary snapshots, speaking neither with the photographer’s nor his subject’s voice.  Within the context of the other images, they help tell the story, but they lack the same level of poignancy and poetry.

  Photographs like “Winky Sharing a Blunt,” “Dwight Playing Pool,” “Vicki Cooking Dinner,” “Jabari, Quan and Ellen,” and an untitled aerial image of a few French fries in a skillet and a cigarette dangling from the fingers of the cook’s cropped arm are Eich at his finest.  Each of these photographs relies on a different approach for its power; that is, none of them are formulaic.  In “Winky,” it is the saturated color, courtesy of street and traffic lights, the geometry of the spaces, and the poignancy of a heart shape floating against a dark background: an earring caught by the light.  In “Dwight,” it is the warmth and festivity that seems out of character with the cheapness of this one-room bar.  In “Vicki,” it is the stark contrast between this attractive woman, her attempts at fashion, her homemade cornbread, and her bleak surroundings: a piece of cardboard in the window and pots and pans in a brown paper bag.  In both “Jabari” and the untitled photo, it is the look of an indie film still that rivets, especially the implied narrative, empty spaces full of meaning, and visual tension.  In the former, it is also the unsettling lushness of the red glow—and the counterpoint of a green Sprite bottle sitting on the floral cloth-covered dining table—that permeates this spare and dated dining room.

  This two-part project was originally born of a commission from AARP Bulletin for a story about rural healthcare.  It soon became a personal journey for Eich with what seems like an admirable, but naively optimistic goal: breaking down centuries old prejudices that seem as genetic as they are cultural in order to foster dialogue and a greater understanding across some railroad tracks deep in Dixie.  After viewing Eich’s images and reading his blog, one can only hope that optimism, naïve or otherwise, wins out.

Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town, through March 12, 2011
Lorrie Saunders ArtGallery
424 W 21st Street, Norfolk, VA
757-627-9808 /