Anyone living in the digital age will recognize the posture assumed by the subjects in Eric Pickersgill’s series Removed, on view at Rick Wester Fine Art through May 21. Heads lowered, arms bent, hands cupped to embrace the contours of a mobile phone, it is, increasingly, the way our bodies arrange themselves to access the modern world.
In Pickersgill’s series, however, the devices themselves are conspicuously absent, taken away from their owners — friends, family, and strangers — by Pickersgill moments before he releases the shutter. The intent of the intervention is to underscore the real-world alienation underlying the hyper-connectivity of a wired world.
In image after image, Pickersgill drives the point home through various configurations of people in his native North Carolina. Young and old, alone and together, everyone’s distracted and distant, lost in their own singular occupations. Most people appear just inches apart, sitting on sofas or relaxing in bed, while others are also physically separated. Regardless, they all look worlds away from one another and, moreover, rather miserable.
When they’re depicting the technological disruption of iconic social occasions, Pickersgill’s images are as humorous as they are disturbing. In one, newlyweds — still in bridal gown and tuxedo — sit on the hood of their Just Married getaway car, absorbed in their invisible devices. In another, a child at a family barbecue gazes toward the camera with an expression somewhere between confusion and dismay, while nearby adults appear lost in their palms.
Most of the images, however, depict relatively banal situations in uninspired settings, and Pickersgill’s traditional compositions do little to compensate for that. Ultimately, his achievement is largely a conceptual one. And it’s one that clearly resonating with the photographer’s intended audience, who’ve gleefully shared countless stories about the viral series online. Clearly, they recognize something of themselves in these portraits.
As well they should. There is indeed something that rings true about this expression of 21st-century life. But technology’s impact on our social lives is often more complicated — and less bleak — than these black-and-white images would have us believe. Phones isolate, but they can also bring people together, both across distances and face-to-face. In Pickersgill’s vision, however, there’s no room for views of people sharing or creating together with their devices. There’s no room for smiling either.
Presenting a focused point of view is an artist’s prerogative, and surely, there’s something fun about a reflection of the way we live now that’s so unwaveringly grim. Still, one wonders what a portrait of digital life would look like with a little color, even a little joy.