Date
Volume 18, Number 1
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Matthew Pillsbury
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For fine art photographer Matthew Pillsbury (MFA 2004 Photography, Video and Related Media) growing up without television (there was none in his childhood home) led to some intriguing artistic inspiration later in life. It was not until his undergraduate years in the 1990s at Yale that Pillsbury began a relationship with the communal aspects of television, particularly as he watched the series Melrose Place with a group of friends each Wednesday evening. “Even after college, there was always that one television show, one thing we all had in common.” he says. “My friends and I didn’t watch all the same movies or read the same books, but we did always seem to have that one show.”

So during his studies at SVA he was struck with a desire to create portraits of his friends and the television programs they watched, and this in turn led Pillsbury to create his first series of long-exposure photographs. “Immediately, it was so much more than I expected it to be,” he says. “The ghostliness of the people was almost a byproduct of the initial interest in the television shows these people were looking at.”

Using an 8x10 camera and the available light in the room and letting the length of the television program the sitter was watching be the length of the exposure, the results were a revelation. “I wasn’t interested in creating an image that would be evocative of whatever TV show had been chosen, I was trying to illustrate the role television plays in our lives and the amount of time we spend in front of it,” Pillsbury says. “I didn’t worry about it being a recognizable, iconic moment. What appealed to me was the idea of its being a blank screen that the viewer could fill in.”

Capturing the passage of time (in most cases one hour) and people’s inactivity as they watched has led to the creation of some striking images. “I love how the fundamental aspects of photography can reveal things of our world that are really surprising,” he says.

Over time, Pillsbury moved beyond just an obsession with television and he began documenting the fixation people have with other electronic devices—the computer and the cell phone, for instance. “I realized the role these objects were playing and the amount of time we’re spending with them,” he says. “Many people now spend several hours a day with these things, and yet that’s not being reflected in the art people are making.” But his work is not a criticism of people’s ever-growing dependence on electronic gadgets; instead, he’s allowing the viewer to revel in the beauty that can be found in passing moments that we usually just take for granted.

In addition to capturing intimate moments at home with his subjects, Pillsbury began shooting in large public spaces such as museums, train stations, department stores and casinos. “I’m interested in our impermanence in these spaces,” he says. “I have this photograph of a dinosaur skeleton that looks alive in the image. In person you of course can see that it’s not moving, but in the photograph there’s this play of it being ‘on the move’ and the crowds of people around it sort of disappearing and becoming secondary.” It is in these public spaces that the frenetic energy of the crowds gives new life to subjects such as taxidermy animals, statues, theater sets and even the Mona Lisa.

Whether capturing a friend sitting down to watch The Sopranos or the crowd that passes by the jellyfish tank at the New York Aquarium at Coney Island, Pillsbury makes the viewer stop and think about how our time on earth is fleeting. Maybe he sums it up best what he says: “In a way, what I love about photography, my core interest, is its ability to reveal the ordinary aspects of our world in extraordinary ways.”

Pillsbury’s photographs have been exhibited in many solo and group exhibitions; he is represented by the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York and his work can be found in museum collections, including the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; and the Tate Modern in London.

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