Photo Credit: Kathy Ryan

BORN AND RAISED in Paris by American parents, Matthew Pillsbury has admired Atget’s revelations of that capital from early on, and loved Brassaï’s “Paris By Night” series, which later became a big influence. By chance, his father was tennis partners with William Klein and for his mother’s 50th birthday, Klein gave her a photograph — Candy Store, New York (1955) — that first lit the desire to make street pictures of depth and resonance, while exploring time and motion.

What’s immediately identifiable in Pillsbury’s work is the prevalence of people as dervish-like apparitions — more aura than flesh. He employs longer exposures to create a sense of action not quite frozen but trapped in a calculated lapse of time. What to most amateur photographers would be a “bad” snapshot that blurs the subject is to Pillsbury a chance lacework of human choreography. In suggesting rather than emphasizing the people in front of his camera, he reminds one of Francis Bacon’s whispery figures. His shots are likewise at the outskirts of portraiture, identity evaporated into its more solid surroundings — echoes of life’s mutability and transience. Pillsbury is inspired by any number of artists, having toured Europe as a child with his cultivated parents, and mentions in passing a flagellation scene in a Titian painting he once saw in a Venetian church, illumined solely by firelight. That light, or its descendent, finds its way into his photos of people transfixed by personal devices.

Pillsbury has incessantly watched movies in Paris, a city that caters to cinephiles of every stripe, and he counts that as a profound influence on his work as well. At the age of 10 he was cast in a film with Catherine Deneuve, Le Bon Plaisir (he played the bastard son of a character based on President Mitterand). He at first studied to become a filmmaker until a professor at Yale, Lois Conner, derailed him with her photographs. But he is naturally drawn to the theater he finds at urban sites, and his photographs often possess a quiet drama in their very irresolution, hinting at private narratives.

“I find a huge amount of artistic pleasure in television and movies,” he says. “I love technology for what it allows me to do: I can be in Tokyo for weeks at a time and I can be in touch with my friends and family, and find my way around that complex city. I just think it’s important to question it. We’re very unaware of the role that technology plays in our lives, so my hope is to be a mirror reflecting that back onto us.”

Artists as widely varied as Ernst Kirchner, Edvard Munch and George Tooker have engaged the idea of loneliness and isolation in modern life, and Pillsbury confronts it often, if obliquely: “We’re privileging instant global communication at the expense of personal face-to-face communication.” For him, the ubiquitous miracles of high tech could be a devil’s bargain that can drain the humanity out of public interaction (from rock concerts to family dinners). His pictures, particularly in his series “Screen Lives” (friends watching television) and “City Stages” (strangers glued to cell phones and tablets even when surrounded by compelling cityscapes), embrace this ambivalence in ways that anyone will recognize.  To Pillsbury, the mediation of technology usurps even the most primal experiences. Last year he photographed “Manhattanhenge” — the moment when the sun sets on the axis of New York’s streets — and observed that most of those present, rather than sharing the phenomenon with one another as people once did, were recording and sending to those not present. So much now is spectacle, but so little is absorbed without a digital net.

Pillsbury is fascinated with cities as evolving organisms. He cites the changes that were made in 19th century Parisian society by the advent of department stores along Haussmann’s newly plotted boulevards, which allowed women to stroll the streets without being mistaken for prostitutes. “Suddenly there was this life that took place on the street and painters of the day reflected that. There were both good and bad things that resulted from it, and it was interesting to be made of aware of it. Without being too critical, that’s what I’m trying to do — provoke people to question how it affects their lives.”

Paris and New York are the cities Pillsbury knows best, and they appear in many of his images, as ongoing urban portraits. But he has been spending more time lately in Tokyo, which is the subject of his current exhibition at Benrubi Gallery in New York. Having also shot in London and Venice, “Tokyo” is the first series Pillsbury has shot in color — a decision having much to do with the fact that it’s the first culture he has targeted that was entirely foreign to his own, and a place that continually surprised and “liberated” him. The results are by turns amusing, haunting, ravishing and exhilarating. He plans to return as soon as possible.

Matthew Pillsbury “Tokyo” at Benrubi Gallery, New York, through October 25.  Matthew Pillsbury: City Stages (Aperture, 2013).

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More from the Photographer Spotlight Series:

MONA KUHN

MURRAY GARRETT

FORMENTO & FORMENTO

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SERIES PRODUCER / MICHAEL KURCFELD