All the City’s a Stage, its Pedestrians Major Players

“Sitting on the High Line, New York, Thursday, November 10, 2011.”  © MATTHEW PILLSBURY, COURTESY BONNI BENRUBI

“Sitting on the High Line, New York, Thursday, November 10, 2011.” © MATTHEW PILLSBURY, COURTESY BONNI BENRUBI GALLERY

BY NORMAN BORDEN  |  Matthew Pillsbury is a photographer with a unique vision of contemporary metropolitan life. For the last decade or so, he’s been taking long exposure, large format (8×10 inch film) black and white photographs that compel viewers to slow down and smell the roses, so to speak — or at least take a closer look at their urban environment.

His current exhibition features 31 images selected from three bodies of his work: “Private Lives,” “Hours” and “City Stages.” Together, they illustrate how urban spaces serve as a backdrop, or stage, for a city’s source of energy: its inhabitants. With his tripod-based view camera — and using exposures that can last well over an hour — Pillsbury lets us view human activity in a palpable way. The time exposures allow us to see individuals interacting in their bedrooms or living rooms, or the isolation they experience in front of TV or computer screens. He shows us huge, blurred crowds of people swarming against recognizable cityscapes, landmarks and interior spaces.

Pillsbury’s long exposures slow the urban swarm

Although most of the pictures were taken in New York, Pillsbury also photographed sites in Paris, London, Venice and other cities. Nothing is lost in translation. In the Louvre, a blurry mass of visitors crowd around and walk past the Mona Lisa — who remains motionless, still unsmiling and oblivious to her admirers.

“Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York, 2011.”  © MATTHEW PILLSBURY, COURTESY BONNI BENRUBI

“Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York, 2011.” © MATTHEW PILLSBURY, COURTESY BONNI BENRUBI GALLERY

I’ve watched (and photographed) the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade many times, but Pillsbury has captured it in an unexpected and original way. His camera is perched above the crowds, with the rock-steady buildings along Seventh Avenue a stage for the blurred masses, mostly faceless because of their activity. Even more interesting are the marchers and balloon handlers directly in front. Their balloon’s movement makes it look more mysterious, while hiding its identity.

“La Joconde, Salle des Etats, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2008.”  © MATTHEW PILLSBURY, COURTESY BONNI BENRUBI

“La Joconde, Salle des Etats, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2008.” © MATTHEW PILLSBURY, COURTESY BONNI BENRUBI GALLERY

“Sitting on the High Line” adds a new perspective to one of New York’s most popular and iconic destinations. Shooting at night, Pillsbury creates a new cityscape by using the sunken overlook at West 17th Street and the buildings behind them as a stage. The long exposure makes the two people sitting on the steps transparent, while the two (look closely for them) in the first row are ghost-like. One or two ghostly figures seem barely visible in the facing windows. The night setting and the graphic effect created by the crisscrossing lines enhance the image’s strength. It’s one of my favorites.

“Tanya and Sartaj Gill, CSI: Miami, New York, Monday, November 25, 2002, 10:00–11:00 p.m.”  © MATTHEW PILLSBURY, COURTESY BONNI BENRUBI

“Tanya and Sartaj Gill, CSI: Miami, New York, Monday, November 25, 2002, 10:00–11:00 p.m.” © MATTHEW PILLSBURY, COURTESY BONNI BENRUBI GALLERY

The artist adds another perspective to the “Tribute of Light, New York,” the much-photographed twin beams of light that shine above each year to commemorate the events of 9/11. Photographing them from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, his long exposure captures people walking past, including the tripods set up by other photographers. They’re all transformed into ghost-like figures, which add a mournful touch to a sad event.

In Pillsbury’s “Screen Lives” series, the artist took long exposures of friends in their apartments while they were sitting in front of their television or computer screens. When interviewed by the School of Visual Arts magazine, he explained that he grew up in France and wasn’t allowed to watch TV. He said, “I realized the role these objects (TV and computers) were playing and the time we’re spending with them.” He then began taking long exposures that would last as long as a TV program and show how people interact with the screen. One example is “Tanya and Sartaj Gill, CSI: Miami, New York, Monday, November 25, 2002, 10:00–11:00 p.m.” Over the course of the hour, the couple on the couch has barely moved — their empty dishes and cake plate on the coffee table, the scene lit by the TV’s glow and ambient light from outside. While the cityscape as seen from the windows looks vibrant, they seem isolated from it.

"Dinosaur Coming to Life, American Museum of Natural History, NY, 2004."  © MATTHEW PILLSBURY, COURTESY BONNI BENRUBI

“Dinosaur Coming to Life, American Museum of Natural History, NY, 2004.” © MATTHEW PILLSBURY, COURTESY BONNI BENRUBI GALLERY

There’s more to see and savor in this show: images of Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park, the sweet joys of Economy Candy on the Lower East Side, crowds swarming among the motionless dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History, more images of the artist’s family life and self-portraits.

Take your time. After all, Matthew Pillsbury did.

Norman Borden is a New York-based writer and photographer. The author of more than 100 reviews for NYPhotoReview.com and a member of Soho Photo Gallery and ASMP, he currently has an image from the 2013 Village Halloween Parade in the juried show, “Masquerade,” at the New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery. See more at normanbordenphoto.com.

PHOTOGRAPHY  |  CITY STAGES: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTHEW PILLSBURY
Through March 27
At Aperture Gallery
547 W. 27th St.
Btw. 10th & 11th Aves. (4th Floor)
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 10am-6pm
Aperture recently published Matthew Pillsbury’s book, “City Stages”
Call 212-505-5555 or visit aperture.org

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