Photographer’s lens finds joy and grief in struggle
by Teresa Annas
The Virginian-Pilot 03/03/11

NORFOLK, VA - Matt Eich puts himself into potentially risky situations to tell a visual story. In doing so, the photographer is making a national name for himself.

Prints from his documentary series "Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town" are on display through March 10 at Lorrie Saunders ArtGallery in Ghent.

The photographer will attend a reception for his show Friday and give a gallery chat.

Eich, 24, was raised in Suffolk and lives in Norfolk. He's barely out of photojournalism school at Ohio University. Yet his work already has been much featured in prestigious publications, including Time magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, December's National Geographic and last month's Harper's magazine. (He has also freelanced for The Virginian-Pilot. Pilot photographer Hyunsoo Leo Kim edited a video that is part of the show.)

Eich has won many awards. Last spring, Photo District News, a top industry magazine, named him one of 30 emerging photographers to watch.

He won top prize in 2009 from Pictures of the Year International in the community awareness category for a series on poverty-stricken southeastern Ohio. He was recently named a finalist in that category for his "Baptist Town" series.

The ArtGallery show includes 20 images of Baptist Town residents and another 15 photos of scenes without people.

All were shot in a dirt-poor neighborhood called Baptist Town in Greenwood, Miss., where blues legend Robert Johnson spent time in the 1930s.

Eich's approach is at a tricky intersection between fine art and photojournalism. Like the classic photo essayists for Life magazine, Eich goes after long-term projects that bring him into close relationships with subjects.

He got started in Baptist Town last April, when AARP Bulletin sent him to the region to shoot a story on rural health care. Eich learned about Baptist Town, paid a visit, met some folks and shot some pictures.

"I was immediately struck by the openness of that community," he said last week. Maybe 500 people live there, and most do not have jobs - legal ones, in any case, he said.

He returned in May for five days and handed out prints "to show them how I saw them. And they responded well, and that opened more doors."

In Greenwood, whites mostly live north of the Yazoo River and blacks primarily live south of it. The river symbolizes a vast racial, cultural and economic divide.

North of the Yazoo, tourists can take cooking classes on high-end Viking ranges, Greenwood's tourism site boasts.

Just south, Vicki Wooten concocts cheap rations for her three kids on an old stove beside a kitchen window with a cardboard curtain, as documented by Eich. Her husband jailed, Wooten was soon after evicted for lack of rent money.

Eich has photographed young men rolling marijuana cigarettes in emptied cigar shells, called blunts. He shot pictures of residents in church, on porches, even in bed.

He hung out at night with gun-toting guys. One of these men was shot since Eich photographed him, and Eich was invited in with his camera to the wake and funeral.

"You might immediately look at someone who's spent 10 of his 28 years in prison who's holding a gun and has a crazy eye and be pushed back by that," he said. With his camera, Eich's intention is to "peel back the layers and get to who he is, a very rough character but somebody who cares deeply about his community and his family, who wants to be a good person but who has been put into really difficult circumstances."

Eich's style is causing buzz in photo circles. While sympathetic in tone, his pictures are not prettily composed. Central figures may be fuzzy. Cigarette-holding hands jut awkwardly into the frame.

He's capturing an everyday, gritty struggle and using a comparable approach. The result so far is a believable and realistic community portrait that blends joy, communal comfort, drugged behavior, grief and resignation.

It's clear from the way his subjects approach the lens that they are cooperating, even collaborating with Eich on their depiction.

"I keep wondering what it is that draws me back," Eich said. "The truth is, it's the questions.

"What creates this pocket of poverty, crime and violence? Why does it exist in such a pronounced way in this place?"

This year, he will also shoot north of the river and combine the two community portraits. He wants to first display the photos in Baptist Town and then cross the Yazoo "to the white side of town, as a way of visually introducing neighbors to one another."