Words by Madeleine Morley, behind the scenes photography by Christine P. Holmes. Hayley’s photographs were shot using the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G
Visual artist Hayley Eichenbaum’s work has always relied on space - both physically and figuratively. Throughout her career she has become synonymous with expansive, surreal and pensive imagery that documents the nuances of American life, often captured on long road trips across the country. In this new series, created in collaboration with the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G, Hayley once again takes to the open roads with nothing but a phone in hand to create a project that reflects on the year that changed everything.
It’s dawn. A single car is driving down a single road that cuts across a golden corn field. The sun’s rays are brown and orange, reflecting the deep colour of the corn. Behind the wheel, Milwaukee-born-and-raised photographer Hayley Eichenbaum is making her way north — but she’s not heading anywhere in particular. “I just pick a road, I pick a route, and then I wander,” she says, remembering the many sunrises like this one that have lately crowned her morning creative routine. “I give myself permission to get lost.”
Road trips are often times for reflection. They’re times for self-discovery, for remembering, for healing, for considering — and for Hayley, they’ve always played a vital role when she’s going through changes, whether professional or personal. This year, taking to the road between her home towns of Los Angeles and Milwaukee has been no different. The emptied highways that she’s seen from the window as she drives, though, have taken on new resonance in a year that has challenged so many, as shown in her latest photography series. Themed “Reflection,” the photographs capture the moods Hayley has felt during her lengthy, spontaneous drives, and they’ve all been captured by and edited with nothing other than a Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G. With this tool in hand, Hayley has found it possible to travel light, edit images on-the-go, and feel unencumbered without the need for bulky equipment or too much planning.
Since graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute and the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Hayley has become known for her vivid photographs of bold architectural spaces that she spots on her way through the American Southwest. Her photographs recast familiar vernacular surroundings into uncanny, fantasy scenes, ones that seem to belong more to classic cinema than they do everyday life. These melancholy shots of empty drive-ins, motels, diners, and stucco bungalows radiate with a nostalgic shimmer, filled with pastel colours, slab serifs, pink tiles, snazzy neons, curiously cut hedges, and Memphis-style geometries. For the photographer, shooting spaces like these has taken on a new meaning during the current lockdown period sparked by COVID-19, especially during a time when architecture off the highway — spaces built for travellers, for large groups on-the-move — no longer seems to match the world we currently inhabit.
“Prior to COVID, I was mostly interested in showcasing space, which is why my photographs were empty of people,” says Hayley. “Now, people aren’t out in the same way. It’s truly a ghost town in parts.” Her new “Reflection” series, made in partnership with Samsung and WePresent, focuses on transitory spaces in stasis, on voids in the places where people once congregated, and on the uncanniness of a world that seems — at times — to be on pause.
Photographing and driving have always been deeply entwined for Hayley. After studying sculpture and performing arts, she took to the road whenever she needed inspiration, capturing spaces that caught her attention for their curious shapes and colors, and using her phone or whatever she had close at hand to quickly capture an image. “I am self-taught,” she says, recalling how she has never had any formal training in photography. It was through first capturing what she saw with her phone that she then began to put pictures online. “It was then on Instagram that people started first seeing my work.”
Given the filmic nature of her images — and their wide architectural scenes that seem to have leapt from the set of a sci-fi movie— a wide aspect ratio is often preferred. “I tend to lean towards the 16 x 9 cinematic ratio, and that's just really hard to do on phones,” says Hayley. “I was really impressed with the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G phone’s capabilities on that front; it's how I was able to get these really long, wide shots.” She also notes that the phone’s long battery proved all the better for unexpected detours.
For the photographer, capturing a clear foreground, middle ground, and background is also vital for her vision, especially for her new series, in which the intermingling of sky and facade is crucial. In response to the theme of “reflection,” Hayley looked for structures that specifically mimicked the sky’s shape or colours in some way, culminating in pairings that create a sense of uncanniness and fantasy in the images. Typically with camera phones, Hayley has also felt limited by their abilities to capture multiple planes, finding that the foreground is either too dark or the sky too bright. “With the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G, I’ve been able to capture everything as I saw it, which made the post-production far easier,” she says. “I didn’t have an issue with lighting at all. I even have one picture here where I was able to actually capture the moon right above the building, which I was so surprised by.”
While road trips have always been a natural part of Hayley’s process, this year, the freedom and creative space they have usually afforded her has been more challenging to tap into. In January, prior to the spread of COVID-19 in America, her former creative partner passed away tragically and unexpectedly at the young age of 28. “I was already in an intense place of mourning when lockdown began,” remembers Hayley. “My personal world, internally had stopped in January and then the world seemed to follow, it seemed to stop as well.” Given her grief and the shutdown happening around her, Hayley developed a fear of leaving the house.
“It wasn’t until very recently that I was finally able to get back in my car,” she says — a place she feels newly empowered within, as it allows her to travel freely while still at a distance from others. “I rediscovered it as a safe space, and also, I’ve been trying to relearn how to showcase my individual vision without my partner.” She began to explore different routes away from her house — driving along highways to Appleton, to Fond du Lac, to Delavan — “just for my own sake, to get the cobwebs out.”
After losing her creative partner, the economic hit that the art world took this year also shook Hayley’s practice, as with so many other practitioners. “The situation has definitely affected the amount of business I receive,” she says. “It’s been hard to know that the world doesn’t view artists as necessary workers — and on some levels, I understand. But on the other hand, we’re also the ones providing a vision, and the things that give people hope. I know I’ve relied on artists over the last months, to give me hope.”
Driving through fields and desert landscapes, waking up early to capture images at dawn, checking the weather for clouds or thunder, and all of the other things that go into planning a shoot have felt newly healing to Hayley, a step towards rediscovering her perspective as an artist. During daily road trips on her own, in the vast and empty expanse of the American countryside, she looked for the small details — be it the red of a fire hydrant, the symmetry of a shadow, the rose colour of a neon sign at twilight — that make her surroundings feel a little less oblique. They make her feel grounded again after a period of staying home for so long.
Watch · 02:10