Most people wage a halfhearted battle against technology’s takeover of everyday life, but Erin Pollock funnels her tech-istential angst into paintings that artfully illustrate society’s reliance on cellphones. Her Devices series is based on photos of real people staring at their smartphones, but Pollock omits the actual gadgets, transforming subjects into hunched figures staring at their empty hands, faces lit by the ghostly blue glow of their missing phones.
Pollock was raised in Alaska, known for its natural beauty and limited cell service. “This is a relatively new thing for me. I got my first cellphone at age 23 and a smartphone maybe five years after that. My addiction developed quickly over the last few years, and it terrifies me,” she tells The Creators Project. Moving to Seattle and relying on her phone as a distraction during commutes nurtured Pollock’s fraught relationship with technology. “I am a member of the zombie mass. I move through the city silently, earbuds in, eyes locked on my screen, dodging other people as if they were obstacles in a car-racing video game,” she says.
One night, while waiting at a busy bus stop, Pollock realized the extent of her reliance on the internet. Earbuds in, while watching a TED Talk and opening a bus schedule app on her phone, she noticed she had 1% battery moments before the screen went black. Panicked, and without thinking, Pollock tapped a fellow commuter on the shoulder to ask him to look up exactly when the next bus would arrive. The guy was startled and jumped, before sheepishly laughing and making fun of himself for being wholly absorbed by his phone.
“We debated whether one could actually be addicted to the internet, and we commiserated about the unique panic of being away from home with a dead phone, and then suddenly we became self-conscious of the fact that we were the only two people making any noise. We looked around to see a visually beautiful but existentially frightening scene: Dramatized by the darkness of the winter evening, every single face in the crowd was slack, hypnotized by the cold blue light from a cellphone,” Pollock says. She robotically reached for her dead phone to document the strange scene, and chastised herself for the knee-jerk reaction, but the idea to examine the impulse lingered.
In the following weeks, Pollock left her phone at home and began toting a real camera around Seattle, snapping photos of ordinary people engrossed by their phones. “Turns out, it’s surprisingly easy to snap pictures of people at close range when they are sucked into the world of their phones,” she says. “I loved how the dramatic lighting of these completely contemporary scenes resembled the chiaroscuro paintings made by Caravaggio and de la Tour in the 1600s. Warm candlelight is replaced by cold digital light. It seemed only natural to push that even further, to make paintings with a traditional sensibility and palette that grapple with our ultramodern relationship to technology.”
Pollock stumbled upon unexpected societal side effects of ubiquitous technology. Cities have become quieter. Single people sit next to one another on public transit, resignedly swiping through strangers on Tinder and wondering if there is a better way to meet people. Parents use iPads and iPhones as pacifiers for antsy toddlers. “Of course there are incredible benefits of these portable technologies. I’m no Luddite. I’m not about to talk trash on the convenience and democratizing power of the internet. We’re obsessed for a reason. I’m just worried about what it’s costing us and whether we can prevent that loss by developing better self-awareness when it comes to our relationships to technology and each other,” Pollock says. “By removing the actual devices, I hope to reveal the intensity of focus paid to these tiny screens.”
Learn more about Erin Pollock’s Devices series on her website.