This is Not
Your Family


In conversation with
Valerie Chiang
Wrestling with Jessie, Columbus, Ohio, 2015

  Taking family photographs is a means to create a continuous narrative by stringing together visual fragments of the shared lives of one’s kin. It is a way to preserve memories that might otherwise become muddy and intangible with the passage of time. Photographing one’s family is an act of love, and it is the heart as well as the eye that composes the photographs contained within the family album.
    This collection of images by Matt Eich of his loved ones shows the strong connection between the members of his family. “It is a fever dream of memory,” Eich says. “Meditations on imperfection and the choice to love someone despite their flaws.”
    By combining portraits and still-lifes, Eich paints a delicate picture of his family’s day-to-day life—his daughters playing together in the living room, crisp fall mornings before school, private moments with his wife Melissa. These photographs manage to evoke the warmth and intimacy of his family without being overly sentimental. They are honest, like handwritten letters to a friend detailing what happened on a particular day, and in them we are able to feel the familial bonds that are universal and resonant.
    This interview was conducted over the course of a year between 2015 and 2016. I started the conversation with Matt in July, and followed up with him some time later to discuss the shifts in his life and work.

Underwarer Implosion, Smithfield, Virginia, 2015

VC: How long have you been working on these images, and how would you describe this body of work to someone?

ME: These pictures have been made over the past 18 months as I pursue an MFA in Photography at Hartford Art School's International Limited Residency Program. I would describe them as an evolution of the family work that I began making as a child and have continued in my early 20s when I became a father and a husband. The motivation for making this work is to stabilize the frailty of memory, first and foremost. It should be part confession, part diary and part proclamation of love. My goal with these new pictures is to give more time and care to the image as opposed to my reflexive documentary approach.

VC: Forgive me for stating the obvious, but everyone in your immediate family beside yourself is female. Your work reminds me a little of Jo Ann Walters’ series Vanity + Consolation. I sense a similar admiration for the beauty of childhood, one that offers a glimpse into what it’s like to grow up female in America.

ME: I cannot help but be influenced by my deep admiration of the strong women in my life and in the communities I have documented outside of my home. When photographing other communities I find myself drawn to flawed father figures struggling to do their best, and they are often anchored by a strong female figure. I also photograph my extended family, which includes my father, brother, brother-in-law and grandfather. In this family work my aim is not to over idealize childhood or motherhood but to examine some of the uncertainties that are wrapped up in family life, from the perspective of both the child and the adult. My view is that of a father who has many hopes and fears for his daughters as they grow into young women in a rapidly changing country. For better or worse I have a tendency towards romantic light, which underscores some of my youthful idealism. I'm kind of a hopeless romantic and feel the need to fall in love with a person or a place in order to do them justice in a photograph. Assignments and other projects don't always afford that opportunity, but with my family I have to embrace the reality of how I see them.

Melissa, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2016
VC: Your photographs occupy a sort of middle ground between staged and candid. Some look very much like posed portraits while others seem spur of the moment. Can you tell us a bit more about the process you go through when photographing your family?

ME: These pictures straddle the line between posed and candid as I work pretty fluidly between those two modes. Sometimes I will see a situation where I will ask for someone to stop, other times I just observe. Observation is my natural mode and I am learning to take more control when necessary as time progresses. Some of these photographs are made while I travel when I find something that evokes the feeling of longing or a broken beauty that I associate with home. Wherever I am, I am looking for my family or echoes of how I feel about them.

VC: I’m curious how you edit these photographs since they are so personal to you. How do you decide what stays and what goes?

ME: Most often I turn to people that I trust. Colleagues, friends and family help me see what I am too close to understand. Time is the best editor. In the moment it can be hard to separate one frame from the next, but with time and some emotional distance from the work, you can begin to clearly see what will end up in the "out" pile.

VC: Before we began our formal interview, you mentioned that in these photos you are capturing your kids growing up as you are growing up yourself. Do you see some of these photographs as self-portraits? How do you balance your life as a young father?

ME: A lot of the images are about how I see my family, but they are also about how my family sees me. Whether I intend to or not, I project my feelings on the sitter and they mirror this back at the camera. I have made self-portraits as part of this project and also allowed my daughter to make portraits of me, turning the tables a bit.
    Balancing life...that is something entirely different. I'm not sure it is possible. When I was in undergrad I asked a professor, Bruce Strong, how he managed to balance teaching, family and making work. He laughed and said, "Matt, there is no such thing as balance. Something will always suffer. It's up to you to have the wisdom to know what must suffer at any given moment." I've tried to use this guideline as I make decisions in the day-to-day chaos of being a husband, father and independent photographer.
    Right now I am in graduate school pursuing an MFA, juggling long-term projects, preparing two books for publication, exhibiting work, accepting assignments whenever they come in to pay bills, selling existing archive work, applying for grants, traveling and more. Occasionally I have an intern/assistant in the studio for a few months at a time, but usually I am working on my own without a rep or gallery.
    When I am home, (which has thankfully been more frequent of late) time is spent grocery shopping, cooking, washing dishes, taking out trash, bathing babies and trying to give my wife some time and space to relax. This is all to say that the idea of balance is an illusion. Wherever I am, half of my brain feels the need to be doing something else, for work or for family. 

above: Dream Home, Norfolk, Virginia, 2015; below: Backyard Haircut, Norfolk, Virginia, 2015  

VC: Tell us a little about the relationship between you and your wife. How does she feel about these photographs?

ME: My wife, Melissa, and I met at Ohio University where we lived in the same dorm. She was a freshman and I was a sophomore when we fell in love. A little more than a year later, she was pregnant with our oldest daughter, Madelyn. We decided to commit ourselves to one another and to try to make things work as a family. This meant alternating schedules for about a year, when she was in class I was watching our daughter and vice-versa. After completing undergrad, we moved to Virginia so that she would be close to my family for her graduate studies while I continued to accept assignments and travel for projects. We lived in Norfolk, Virginia for six years and are now living in Charlottesville, Virginia.
    I have been photographing Melissa since we first met. It is certainly an integral part of our relationship. At times she grows weary of the camera or frustrated with my obsessiveness and will tell me to put it down, but she is usually a willing participant. When pictures come back from the lab I make little work prints and hang them on the wall so that we see them each day. While she isn't a photographer or particularly visually inclined, I try to engage her and get her perspective on the work as it is being made. More often than not, she has something insightful to say that challenges the way I think about what I am doing.
    I prefer not to put words in her mouth about how she feels regarding the work, so I decided to ask her while she was sitting on our bed in her underwear, reading a book and sipping a beer on a Sunday afternoon. She said, "In general, I think I am excited that you are doing something that we will look back on in 30 or 40 years and it will be deep and meaningful to us, because these children are our legacy.

These are going to be the crazy times, but I think they are the most meaningful times. We get a chance to grow up with our kids. Now when I look at pictures of Madelyn as a baby, I realize how much time has passed. I hope that this is just a nanosecond of our lives together."

VC: I want to ask you about a newer image of yours, the one where it looks like you shot through a large soap bubble. There is a lot going on here. In fact, all of the subjects are obscured in some way, and I feel a slight uncertainty in this photograph. Where and when was this photo taken, and what are your thoughts on it?

ME: This photograph was made in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2015. It is my sister's 26th birthday, and my family has come together at our new home to celebrate. My parents are sitting next to one another, but there is a distance between them. My daughter throws a ball to my father while my mother leans away, engaged in a phone call. My parents have lived separately for almost a year, but it was only a few months before this image was made that they told us they were separating and that the future of their 33-year marriage was uncertain.

VC: Your daughters seem not to mind the presence of your camera. Are they interested in what you are doing? How has their relationship with you evolved since you began photographing them?

ME: Well, I have photographed both of my children from the moment they entered the world. At this point the presence of the camera is hardly worth noting. That isn't to say they always want to be photographed. And they tell me when that is. More often than not, they willingly cooperate and collaborate. My daughters (Madelyn, 8 and Meira, 3) make pictures sometimes with an Instax camera that I have laying around the house for them. In the past couple of weeks Madelyn has been making some pictures (i.e. composing or releasing the shutter) with a borrowed Mamiya RB67.

She is very artistic and seems interested in the process. She frequently asks painfully insightful questions like, "Daddy, if you don't have a boss, then how come you are working all the time?" She sees the pictures I make of her and her family and likes some more than others. Meira is hard to photograph because she is constantly in motion. But she is very interested in holding photographs, like the little Instax or the 4x6 work prints I have lying about. Sometimes she will climb up on my lap and watch as I look through pictures on my computer or sneak into my office and stand in front of the editing wall, just staring. They are both curious about what I do, and I think some of that uncertainty or curiosity comes through in the photographs.

VC: When we first started this conversation, you and your family were in the process of moving. I hope you are now settled in your new home. Has this move had an impact on your family? Would you say your photographs of them have evolved since we last spoke a few months ago?

ME: The process of moving was stressful, which is to be expected. I didn't expect it to be quite as stressful as it was, with a graduate school session taking place the week after moving. Something has definitely shifted since arriving in this new place, though I can't fully put my finger on it. It has to do with stripping away distractions in my life and in my work, which can sometimes means letting things die that have become a crutch over time. Visually speaking, I started making more photographs in black & white (though I am very much a color photographer) and putting the camera on a tripod to force me to slow down. The results are more intimate and I feel that I am just beginning to break through some new barriers that I probably won’t understand until the MFA is complete and I can get all of these voices out of my head.

Parents Separating, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2015
VC: As you mentioned before, this series is not a definite project with a strict beginning or end, and these images are emotionally related and diary-like. Does working in this manner affect the way you photograph outside of your family? In other words, how does this experience of photographing your family in such an intimate way influence you as a professional working on more concrete, long-term projects or commissioned assignments?

ME: To be honest, this is how I go about making all of my work...non-linear, personal and interested mostly in the emotional resonance. Of course, when it is for a client, I work under a different set of restrictions. The work I make at home certainly influences the way I approach strangers and vice versa. The work begins to bleed together in my mind; they are all part of the same pursuit.

VC: What are your long-range ambitions as a photographer? Any projects underway that you can discuss?

ME: Short-term, it is to keep my head down, make as much work as possible, be with my family as much as possible and wrap up this MFA degree while applying for teaching positions. That should simplify things to some extent. Long-term, I have been working on an essay about the American condition that exists in four chapters. I plan to release this project, called The Invisible Yoke as four separate books between 2016 and 2020. The first chapter, “Carry Me Ohio,” is to be published by Sturm & Drang in the fall of 2016. The family work excerpted here, which I am producing for my graduate studies, is to be released as a monograph by ceiba in the spring of 2017. If I have any ambitions as a photographer, it is to live simply, to provide for my family, to be physically and psychologically present and to produce work that has some personal or social worth. This last part is hard to quantify so, suffice to say, if I can make a sustainable living with a camera, without destroying my family, that I will have fulfilled my long-range ambition as an artist.

Melissa Under Sheets, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2016
Matt Eich (b. 1986) is a portrait photographer and photographic essayist working on long-form projects about the American condition. He is currently a Professional Lecturer of Photography at The George Washington University and continues to accept commissions. Matt resides in Virginia with his family. 

Valerie Chiang is a photographer based between Austin, Texas and Los Angeles, California. She is a dog person, but likes cats, too.