Review of Carry Me Ohio
by Betsy DiJulio
Veer Magazine, August 15, 2012

Struggles in a Small Town
Norfolk Photographer Matt Eich captures harsh
Realities of Ohio region in latest exhibition

Neither sentimental nor judgmental, "Carry Me Ohio" documents the lives of residents of Southeastern Ohio, a region stripped of its natural resources - coal, salt, clay and timber - and with them, economic opportunity. Crushing poverty and its concomitant social ills have plagued these communities since the extractive industries pulled out in the 1960's after well over a century. For the last 6 years, Eich has sought to give visual voice to the people’s struggles to find a way to recovery and towards a cultural identity that is defined by something other than loss.

With deep ties to the foothills of Appalachia – college (University of Ohio), marriage to Melissa, and the birth of the couple’s daughter – Eich and his family were forced to leave and return to his native Hampton Roads by the same economic realities that ensnare the subjects of “Carry Me Ohio.”

green, green youth
what about the sweetness we knew
what about what's good what's true
from those days

Though not all of the 16 images attain the same high level of artistry, most do, even achieving a kind of iconic status, as in the case of “Elvis the Zebra,” published in National Geographic. In this photograph, a zebra stands in a snowy outdoor enclosure. The incongruity is striking on every level and provides an opportunity to examine one’s own cultural stereotypes. Knowing the context of this body of work, one wonders if this is a case of an affinity for exotic animals gone wrong. But, in fact, Elvis resides at the “Wilds,” a refuge for rare and endangered species where this pen adjoins his heated indoor quarters.

Visual, the patterns of organic and man-made stripes – the crisply contrasting ones of the black-and-white zebra and the warmer weathered ones of the fencing – play off of each other in complex and pleasing ways, just as the order and geometry of the pen juxtaposed with the borrowed landscape of feathery trees in the background.

Somehow, though the colors are rich and even romantic in these archival pigment prints, Eich is able to avoid the trap of rendering poverty picturesque in any cliché way. Absent of contrived devices or formulas, as well as of easy metaphors, Eich nonetheless is a master of the subtle frame within a frame.

Time spent with the images allows this strategy to emerge again and again in unexpected and evocative ways. This formal strategy is particularly arresting in a portrait of a young boy and his dog, framed not behind a grimy window of their trailer home, but within the informal framework of rippled and stained duct tape holding the pane of glass together, while separating the boy from his dog.

In “Tylor Holding His Dad’s Ashes,” a 16 year old boy in a deep red tee-shirt and jeans is seated in an upholstered chair, side-lit from a nearby window. He is framed within subtle rectangles created by strips of joint compound on the unfinished walls of this dim, space. In his lap, the teenager holds a simple wooden box containing the remains of his father, the victim of a high-impact 4-wheeler accident. On top of the box is mounted the deceased’s favorite cock-fighting rooster. The expression on the boy’s face, his eyes cut over toward the rooster, is impenetrable. An almost Old World formality and lushness pervades this portrait though it was shot in the most informal and bereft of places.

In contrast to the harsher images from “Carry Me Ohio,” is the photo/video installation, “Love in the First Person,” which tenderly and intimately traces the evolution of Eich and his wife’s relationship from college lovers to the married parents of a young daughter. Unframed and pinned to the wall in two precise grids, the 70 small square iPhone images convey the simultaneous casualness and preciousness of family photographs and albums. The montage-like aesthetic of both the photographs and video also effectively mimic memory: the bits and pieces of our lives that, cobbled together, form our recollections and our constructed understanding of the past. Like projected frames on a movie reel, these discreet and incomplete fragments “play back” seamlessly.

And like the “home movies” of days gone by, the only sound in the video, produced by Hyunsoo Leo Kim, is an original musical score by Tyler Strickland. Though the subjects are speaking, crying, playing or otherwise creating the sounds of daily life, we hear only the music. This poignant disjuncture gently cleaves an emotional distance between then and now, them and us, and between the subjects themselves, effectively suspending the imagery in a nostalgic space and time that can never again quite be grasped.

Known to Hampton Roads audiences from the premier of a previous award-winning photo documentation project, “Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town,” at Lorrie Saunders ArtGallery, Eich, at 26 years old, has earned a national reputation with photographs in the permanent collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and The Portland Art Museum. Working as a freelance photographer and founder of Luceo, he has garnered a long list of prestigious honors, from the Magenta Foundation’s Bright Spark Award to a National Geographic Grant for Photography, among others. His blue chip client list includes, in an addition to National Geographic, Esquire, GQ, Mother Jones, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and more.

Heal her soul
And carry her my angel