Local Arts

Charlotte photographer shows our obsession with our devices; work goes viral

Eric Pickersgill’s 'Remove'

“Removed,” his collection of those images, went viral in October. Although the “missing phone photos” had been on Pickersgill’s website since January, it wasn’t until Business Insider posted a story about the series that the world took note. Almos
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“Removed,” his collection of those images, went viral in October. Although the “missing phone photos” had been on Pickersgill’s website since January, it wasn’t until Business Insider posted a story about the series that the world took note. Almos

Eric Pickersgill’s aha moment came as he drifted off to sleep one night, phone in hand.

The phone fell, hit the floor and woke him up. He looked at his palm, still cupped, as if the phone were in it.

He lay there, looking, thinking, an image forming. He got up, jotted down the idea, then tried to go back to sleep. He couldn’t: Now a rush of images crowded his mind.

A few weeks earlier, Pickersgill, a Charlotte photographer on an artist residency at the time, had watched a family near him in a New York coffee shop. He was so struck, he’d pulled out his sketchbook right then to write about it:

“Family sitting next to me … is so disconnected from one another. Not much talking. Father and two daughters have their own phones out. Mom doesn’t have one ... She stares out the window, sad and alone in the company of her closest family. Dad looks up every so often to announce some obscure piece of info he found online ... No one replies ...

“Mom has her phone out now.”

Gone global

It’s a scene so familiar that we hardly notice anymore.

At restaurants, in cars, at checkout lines, in bed: Our phones go everywhere we go. And it’s their small faces we stare into, as commerce and traffic and strangers and loved ones swirl around us.

Pickersgill, 29, says he felt he and his wife, Angie, 26, had been spending too much time on their devices. Seeing that New York family, then falling asleep phone-in-hand, led him to illustrate the phenomenon, using the medium he’d fallen in love with as a high school kid at North Mecklenburg.

But he added a twist: The device everyone’s so attached to? It’s missing from each photo.

“Removed,” his collection of those images, went viral in October. Although the “missing phone photos” had been on Pickersgill’s website since January, it wasn’t until Business Insider posted a story about the series that the world took note.

Almost at once, Pickersgill found himself fielding calls from CNN, the BBC and other international media. People from 185 countries have accessed his website, with 200,000 unique visitors in one four-week span, he says.

The sudden fame helped land him an agent and New York gallery representation, and though he demurs on the price of his pieces, his New York gallerist, Rick Wester, doesn’t: A 20- x 24-inch archival print (the smallest available in the “Removed” series) is $3,800. A 40 x 50 print (the largest) is $8,000. They’ll debut on the contemporary art market Dec. 1 at the PULSE Miami Beach Art Fair, Pickersgill says.

Yet despite the breadth of the hullabaloo (his agent calls gallery representation “most photographers’ dream”), Angie Pickersgill says her husband’s heart is here. Of all the media attention he’s gotten, she says, he was most excited when his hometown newspaper wanted to write about him.

With reason: Charlotte is where he found both his wife (they met here, teaching science for Teach for America) and his calling.

“Photography sort of saved Eric,” Angie says.

His family had just moved to Charlotte and he was struggling to find his way at North Meck when he tried a darkroom photography class there. He also began taking classes at The Light Factory, Charlotte’s nonprofit photography center. There he saw that, perhaps, he could make a living at what he loved.

He taught first, at Garinger for a few years with Teach for America, then went back to school. He finished his master’s of fine arts degree this spring at Chapel Hill, where he’s now a visiting lecturer and teaches online. He became director of community engagement for The Light Factory this fall.

He donated a 15 x 12 print of “Angie and Me” to this month’s fundraising auction for The Light Factory, where he now serves on the board. The image, depicting him and his wife in bed, backs to each other, staring at phones that aren’t there, has become the focal point of the series.

She was his first model for “Removed.” Working with her, he figured out how he wanted to present this idea – and how he didn’t.

The fine points

He knew he wanted to show people in device-wielding postures, without the devices. He knew some of the situations he wanted to illustrate – so he’d set those up, with people, often friends, modeling. But he also wanted to photograph people he happened upon, in the positions he spotted them in.

He also knew he didn’t want to use Photoshop to delete the devices. So he couldn’t just photograph people as he saw them: He’d have to stop, introduce himself, explain his project and ask if he could return them to the positions he’d just noticed them in – then slip their phones from their grasps. Surprisingly, perhaps, most said yes.

Photography can be a very manipulative medium. I didn’t want anyone to feel tricked when they saw the images later.

Eric Pickersgill

“Photography can be a very manipulative medium,” he says. “I didn’t want anyone to feel tricked when they saw the images later. All my subjects knew what the photo was about.”

The image of the four women in the garage looking down at their phones is one of the spontaneous ones. Pickersgill had just pulled into his sister’s Concord driveway for a Labor Day party, and she and three friends were taking a break to check email. “Stay right there,” he told them – and retrieved his camera.

He also decided early about color. In his first shots, with Angie, he used a digital camera and color. He didn’t like it: These images, he decided, needed to be in black and white, and not digital.

Practicality played a part, certainly. “I could process (it) myself, which saves time and money.” (The Pickersgills recently turned their guest room into a print studio.)

But it was mainly philosophy that drove the decision.

“I think the black and white separates the photographs from trying to be ‘truthful,’ ” he said. “Most people don’t see in black and white, and so the artifice of photography – the constructed nature of the medium – becomes apparent again.”

Innovative idea, old-fashioned execution

It’s a surprisingly old-school way of shooting a series about our most contemporary obsession. People who see the images tend to assume the phones were deleted digitally.

Wester, the gallerist, said Pickersgill’s method is part of what makes this series work. “If a photographer came to me and said, ‘I shoot pictures and then I remove something digitally from them,’ I’d say, ‘So what?’”

Having his subjects hold, then relinquish their phones keeps the pictures “in the realm of documentary photography,” in Wester’s view. “Eric has tapped into the zeitgeist. He’s shown the power of something by calling attention to its absence.”

Eric has tapped into the zeitgeist. He’s shown the power of something by calling attention to its absence.

Gallery owner Rick Wester

Noted photographer Byron Baldwin, a board member of The Light Factory, said, “The way ‘Removed’ took off is truly amazing. Social media had a lot to do with the story getting spread so widely and so quickly, but it would never have happened if it had not been such a good idea. The quality of the idea drove the story.”

Titling it “Removed,” a play on words with both brevity and brilliance, didn’t hurt.

Pickersgill goes old-school with equipment as well as process. For the series, he used his go-to camera, a 4 x 5 Cambo, the kind that requires the photographer to actually put a cloth over his head when taking pictures in order to see the image he’s capturing. It’s clunky and tough to transport, and he keeps a Canon digital SLR for when he needs to shoot quickly. But he loves that Cambo.

“It was expensive; I have to be careful,” he said. “It slows me down and makes me be more intentional about my work.” He bought it off Craigslist from a pro who’d done a lot of studio work for Belk. “I love the ties this camera has to Charlotte and the South.”

What’s next

Pickersgill says his intent with “Removed” isn’t to shame us into giving up our phones. He and Angie, a medical student doing a rotation at Carolinas HealthCare, both rely heavily on their devices.

“I just hope people see these images and make an informed decision about how they’re spending their time,” he said.

He says he may shoot more “Removed” photos. All 29 in the series were shot in North Carolina; he’d like to shoot in other states, maybe even in other countries. A fine art book may be a possibility.

“I think this project has legs,” said Julie Grahame, Pickersgill’s agent, who’s based in New York and London. “Projects that ‘go viral’ sometimes turn into nothing more than a bazillion blogs republishing your images to little end. (But) Eric embraced this insanity, and managed to get on top of it, both on- and offline, and has been really successful.”

She envisions more exhibitions for her new client, whom she describes as “an unpretentious observer,” in the next few years.

“He already has several great portfolios under his belt, (and) I’m sure he will continue to produce interesting work. Eric is just very open-minded about where this all may take him.”

And where it may not. “This is a one-in-a-billion opportunity,” he says. “I’ll probably be chasing this level of recognition for the rest of my career.”

And what about the phone that launched this idea, the one that, in this chaotic rush, he’s become more dependent on than ever?

“I plan on using my phone less ... Last night, I went to a friend’s dinner party and left my phone at home and it was awesome,” he says.

“I really want to have a different relationship with my device.”

See anyone you recognize?

The appeal of the “Removed” series crosses geographical, language, age and cultural barriers. See it online (if you haven’t already) at removed.social. And if you see yourself in those images, Eric Pickersgill hopes you’ll examine your relationship with your mobile device and “make an informed decision” about how attached to it you really want to be. More of his work is at ericpickersgill.com.