If you have any susceptibility to the allure and romance of cities, then Matthew Pillsbury’s incandescent black and white images of metropolitan life will surely work some magic. Though his series “City Stages” focuses on New York, it is just as often about the idea of a city as a moth-to-the-flame attraction, a glowing, elegant, bustling place where a million dramas and dreams unfold. His images, on view at Jackson Fine Art in Buckhead, certainly cast a spell.
Pillsbury’s tone in “City Stages” is defined by his method. The New York-based photographer shoots with a large format camera and favors long exposures, often holding on the same scene for hours in some cases. That technique makes the buildings hold fast — they are perpetual — while the people are flickering, evanescent blurs, like fireflies passing momentarily through the night. This juxtaposition of stoic buildings and transitory people reinforces the idea that the city is a timeless and enduring place through which an ever changing sea of people pass. In some cases those fluttering, ghostly, just-barely-discernible-as-human figures truly haunt Pillsbury’s images.
Shot from across the East River in Brooklyn toward downtown Manhattan, “Tribute of Light” captures the hazy blur of people passing through this riverside promenade. They are spectators observing a downtown cityscape inflamed with light. In the distance the two columns of light that compose the Sept. 11 memorial “Tribute in Light” project into the air, as vaporous as those passing people. Those lights are the image’s focal points, but it is the ghostly tracers of people passing by and barely there that remind you of the loss that still haunts the city.
If the city is Pillsbury’s primary fixation, then light runs a close second. Pillsbury shoots New York at night, when its apartments and streetlights make it glow like a forest of glittering Christmas trees
His portrait of the glamorous bar at the top of the cosmopolitan Standard Hotel could be the set for a 1920s Hollywood movie. In “Top of the Standard,” the soaring, tree-like form of the bar, the bottles of liquor backlit like a starlet, create a stage set of city enchantment affirmed in Pillsbury’s series title, “City Stages.” In the distance, skyscraper lights twinkle through the enormous bar windows. With customers reduced to abstract forms in Pillsbury’s long exposures, cues of clothing or hairstyle that would place the image in a specific time and place are hard to pick out. “Top of the Standard” could be set in 2012 or 1950.
The image “Contortionist, Big Apple Circus” burns with a similar theatrical brilliance. A contortionist captured in a frenetic blur of activity performs at the center of the circus ring. There is a feeling expressed in the image of perpetuity — that this circus and these performances have been delighting crowds for generations.
By the same token, “Inflating the Balloons” acts out a similar city ritual — the filling of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Spider-Man and Energizer Bunny balloons with helium. The balloons are shown from a distance, lined up along the avenue like beauty pageant contestants waiting to promenade before the judges.
What Pillsbury conveys in his photographs is that every city is an unchanging backdrop of buildings, streets and landscapes — a kind of set — against which individual dramas unfold. The people change but the place is eternal, whether it is a real place, or just the one that lives in our imaginations. Or as the photographer says, “I think of these as places that are awaiting the drama of our lives to come and fill them.”
ART REVIEW“Matthew Pillsbury: City Stages”Through Nov. 17. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; free. Jackson Fine Art, 3115 East Shadowlawn Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-233-3739, www.jacksonfineart.comBottom line: Gorgeous, glistening black and white evocations of the glamour and magic of city life.