It’s eight in the morning in sunny Los Angeles when we ‘Zoom call’ with photographer Hayley Eichenbaum. Hayley is immaculately put together for this early in the day. She always wakes up between 4 and 6 AM, when she’s creatively at her best. We talk about road trips, the importance of words and how she would sneak out of class to spend time in her studio...
Were you really that rebellious? Skipping school to go be an artist?
Oh no, that sounds much more Rock & Roll than what it actually was. It was clear to my family at a very young age that I was a strong draftswoman and painter. And I’ve always taken my creative career very seriously. During my high school years, when my classmates would leave to do their internships, I would check out at noon and go to my studio and work. I would pretend to intern for this artist friend and he would just sign off as my teacher. So sure, there was a little bit of rebellion involved. But it was mostly because I was just very serious about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go with my career.
What was growing up in Milwaukee like? And how did you end up making the move to LA?
Growing up in Milwaukee is very straightforward. It's gaining some creative traction now, but it's still a very up-and-coming place to be an artist. Luckily I have an incredibly supportive father. He knew being an artist was something I was going to do forever. So with his encouragement, his support –finding a studio, signing me up for courses– I was preparing myself for college. I always knew I wanted to live in California. Before going back to finish my degree at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design I studied at the San Francisco Art Institute. After university I decided to plan a month-long solo road trip along Route 66, ending in Santa Monica. It wasn’t until after that trip I made the decision to move to Los Angeles and fully focus on photography. I realize now that growing up in Milwaukee on flat land, with flat buildings, kind of instilled this attraction in me for the flat architecture of Los Angeles. But I’m also attracted to the really strange shrubbery in LA that is also prevalent in Milwaukee.
I think that makes sense, your work feels very Southern California. Not just because you create these amazing kind of Hollywood setstills, but also because there’s a sense of wilting romance in your imagery. Almost an ode to the American dream?
Yes, very much so. My first solo-show in LA was actually called ‘The Preservation of Romance’. They were Southwestern Americana road trip photos. For me a lot of that area, particularly the Southwest, is about the loving care that people have put in these dilapidated highways. Before commercial flights were a thing, those roads were the heart of everything. They connected all corners of America. There are so many businesses that thrived back in the day. And they still put so much care and love into these spaces. I just remembered thinking: ‘They preserve the romance of route 66’. They are preserving this romanticized idea of what those road trips are.
You have a very large following on instagram? What has that done for your practice?
I got onto Instagram when it was just emerging and I was lucky enough to start communicating with this small pocket of artists. We were aesthetically interested in the same things. With the encouragement of these people I had met on instagram I started building my photography portfolio. I didn’t create my account with any expectations, and I only follow people that inspire me creatively, but I’m really grateful for what’s come of it.
How much are you influenced by modern art and social media itself?
Cinema bears a heavy influence on my work, much more so than still images. I think because my brain thinks in 3D. I’m very much into 1960-1970 sci-fi films--like Stanley Kubrick’s work, specifically The Shining. His cinematography and the way he uses colors and symmetry is so intelligent. But I also love Isabella Rosselini, the way she crosses disciplines; being a model and an objectively weird performance artist. I’m obsessed with her short films series, Green Porno. Her goal is to be both entertaining and educational.
You are also a multidisciplinary artist yourself; you minored in design, illustration and fine art, and graduated with a performance art piece. Do you ever feel the pressure to make a choice between your passions?
Just because I’m working more in photography and a more commercial realm doesn’t mean I have lost my heart for fine art. It has taken a bit of a backseat for now. Reality is also that I have to support myself financially, so I have to make tough decisions. I was gaining traction with photography and that’s where I’m making money now. When the right opportunities arrive I’ll be dipping my toe back in the fine art, gallery and museum world. But the way I approach my commercial work is still very much the same as my personal work.
Do you think art always needs a purpose?
Ten years ago I would have said yes. But as I’ve gotten more and more involved in the photography realm and the commercial world I have embraced this idea that it’s ok to not always have this core, heavy concept. You can leave it up to the buyers, or the audience, as long as the aesthetics are good I suppose. But I really grew into that, to be an artist that creates for the sake of art.
So you leave it up to the audience to have a certain reaction to your work? You don’t instill a deeper meaning in your images for the viewer to feel something?
For me going on these road trips is cathartic. I love being alone, I love being in my car with my dog and I think it's been a healing mechanism for me for many years now. If I could provide some sort of escape into a surreal world with my images, that would be really nice. I want to produce these images that make you question what you’re seeing? Is it real or is it not. And could that exist in the real world? And sure enough it does, you just have to look for it.
Can you tell us a bit more about your process. How much, and what kind of research goes into these road trips?
My father is a writer and he really instilled the love for words in me. He has an incredible vocabulary. Because of him, the dictionary app on my phone is crucial. To me everything starts with language, whether it’s a word or a sentence. Then I’ll start unpacking that word or phrase, looking at the definitions, synonyms. And I’ll write about my relationship to that concept, that word. From there I’ll pull things that I think are interesting conceptually and that is often the starting point of my imagery.
When I go on one of my road trips I kind of map out where I go based on the monthly weather predictions. I want some cloudy days for compositions, sunny days for intense light. And I even want some stormy days for a dramatic effect. Then I just start driving, with sometimes a building in mind that I’m looking for, and sometimes I’m leaving it all up to faith. If I’ve found a certain object that I love I can wait for days on end for the weather conditions to be just perfect. I don’t drive all the way to New Mexico just to take a shitty picture.
With spending so much time on the road, what is home to you?
Anywhere in California. When I first moved out here my father would come and visit me every month, I’m the baby of the family and he just couldn’t let go. To be able to share this creative life with him is super special. I guess in the end I just want to make him and my younger self proud.