For his black-and-white images, often set against a sensuous nighttime cityscape, Matthew Pillsbury uses only the available glow of a screen — the computers, TVs, cell phones and iPods that have taken over our lives — resulting in an eerie iridescence that recalls the movement in Francis Bacon’s pope paintings. Recently named one of two 2007 winners of the prestigious, Paris-based HSBC Foundation’s award for photography, Pillsbury is currently showing his work at M+B Fine Arts in Los Angeles. From his home in New York, he responded via e-mail to a series of questions from the Weekly’s Tom Christie:
The project grew out of my interest in photographing my friends and family. I felt like our lives were going through this period of change, but I was having a difficult time communicating what it was that interested me or making the pictures visually compelling. As I thought about those things that we shared and did, the time we spent watching our favorite TV shows stood out. I was inspired by Hiroshi Sugimoto’s movie-theater pictures (where each theater is photographed for the duration of the movie being projected) to have the light from the screen be the only/dominant light source in each picture and to photograph my friends for the duration of whatever television show they chose to watch. Moreover, I wasn’t interested in selecting a single image from each show to be visible on the screen. Lee Friedlander’s “little screen” photographs had already explored the dialogue that could be created in between an image on the screen and the room in which it was being watched. The glowing white screens in my photographs are like a blank canvas on which the viewers can project their own experiences.
As my project grew, I realized that the pictures were not just about the people I was photographing but also about the role that technology was taking on in our lives. Computers, cell phones and countless other devices played as important a role as TVs, so I began to incorporate them into the series as well. Los Angeles is incredibly important in this series, as it’s both the place from which much of the content being watched on these TV screens is created and also a place that was at the forefront of our “screen lives.” Cell phones, pagers, etc., all found early adoption here and were promoted through their visibility in movies and TV shows.
In the 19th century, French painters were obsessed with documenting the impact of modern technology (rail at the time) in their society. I have been amazed to see how little contemporary art has examined the role that television, computers and modern technology have taken in our lives. My pictures were born out of my love of television and modern technology, and yet many people find them to say something negative about contemporary isolation. That we all have paid a price in favoring immediate connection over physical interaction. As the artist, I don’t feel that it’s my place to take a position on those questions, but I would hope that my pictures invite viewers to examine the role that technology has taken in their lives.
Besides Sugimoto’s movie theaters and Lee Friedlander’s “little screens,” which were direct inspirations, my passion for photography is born out of its ability to reveal the extraordinary within the ordinary. That’s something I have gotten from looking at the work of artists such as Lois Conner and Abelardo Morell. I love taking familiar situations and using photography to show them to us in ways we haven’t seen before. We have all watched a show while lying in bed but never stop to look at how beautifully the screen is illuminating us in return.
As with all artists, I think photographers have to strive to find a way to share whatever unique view they have on their world. I would love for my work to bring a sense of wonder and beauty while making people question their own lives.
The technical challenges of these images all relate to the length of the exposures, which range from 10 minutes to well over an hour. During that time, any movement of the camera will ruin the final result. Moreover, there is no way to properly measure the exposure in such low-light situations. Brassai said of his famous Paris night pictures that his exposures were set by the number of cigarettes he felt like smoking. Over time, I have gotten better at estimating the proper exposures. That said, the L.A. pictures were particularly challenging. In many of them I was out of doors, which makes camera movement more likely, and I was balancing many light sources. In Calum and Erica, Grey’s Anatomy and Solitaire, there was the light coming from the swimming pool, the house and the city as well as what was coming from the computer and iPod they were using. In Cell Phone on Venice Beach, I was intent on capturing those last instants of light on the California coast before the night set in. Any earlier and the light from the phone wouldn’t have been visible. Any later and it would have been a night sky instead of this glowing coastline. As with all photography, it’s all in the moment you take the picture — my moment just happens to take longer.
“Matthew Pillsbury: Screen Lives” continues through Feb. 24 at M+B, 612 N. Almont Dr., L.A., (310) 550-0050 or www.MBFALA.com..