Photographer contemplates the fleeting nature of time

Matthew Pillsbury’s photographs of crowds passing through museums, churches, nightclubs and parks might seem a bit gimmicky at first glance. Shooting with a long exposure, Pillsbury captures people as hazy tracers of movement while the spaces they occupy are in crisp focus.

But the use of long exposure as the organizing principle for these images shouldn’t distract from their philosophical charms. Pillsbury’s photographs get under your skin for what they say about the fleeting, enchanted nature of our existence.

In several images on view in “New Work” at Buckhead’s Jackson Fine Art, Pillsbury captures throngs of people passing through crowded museums or galleries, masterworks by Goya or Vermeer hanging on the walls behind them. The people are a blur, but the artworks are in focus—timeless objects that will outlast the procession of visitors with cell phones and iPads held aloft to record the experience. Pillsbury captures people attempting to themselves arrest a moment—a painting observed, a vacation taken. But seen through Pillsbury’s time-based lens they are universalized into one human condition, of people trying to stop time despite its relentless flow.

In the black and white image “Main Staircase - Kunsthistorisches Museum,” Pillsbury shoots a grand staircase at that Vienna museum from a low angle, as the crowd surges toward the massive marble sculptures waiting at the top of the stairs. There is something devotional in such images, in these throngs coming to these great temples of culture to pay their respects, ascending the steps to make their pilgrimage.

In “Hanami #18,” Pillsbury captures the drama of a perfect Japanese cherry tree dripping pink blossoms from long branches. Passersby holding umbrellas promenade below, dwarfed by the majesty of nature’s resplendence.

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There is something poetic in the juxtaposition of these transitory human beings passing beneath these timeless objects; a human desire to stare into eternity and ponder our own insignificance.

Not all of the spaces Pillsbury shoots are so refined: he trains his camera on the tawdry and the kitsch, as in a photo of Tokyo’s famed “Robot Bar,” a gold-ornamented lounge whose orgy of bright lights, mirrors and visual excess makes the room feel like the inside of a pinball machine. Similarly ironic in suggesting the human desire to bask in the wonder of spectacles of every sort is “Cup Noodles Museum,” a well-lit survey of the history of packaged soup that serves as an amusing counter to the masterpieces shown in other Pillsbury images. Pillsbury seems interested in documenting a spectrum of human experiences, from the enchanted to the ordinary. His work also conveys an interest in the human desire to be awed, to seek out bright, shiny things like moths to a flame.

Pillsbury is the main attraction at Jackson, though a back gallery has been given over to Mona Kuhn, and a selection of works entitled “Private.” Kuhn has founded a career on photographs of beautiful nudes. Her latest foray at Jackson combines some of those images of lithe youths bathed in creamy vanilla light. But there are also some more interesting images that add something moody and sinister to the mix: a spiderweb, a woman with an arachnid tattoo, a man with a lavish mustache, a room marked “private.” It’s a modern film noir you long to see more of, an intriguing promise of adult drama far more interesting than perfect bodies.

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