Elizabeth Matheson

Hillsborough native Elizabeth Matheson is a well-known photographer who has, since the pandemic, taken to walking and capturing images with her cellphone camera. 

Everyday, almost like clockwork, people in this area and beyond are treated to photos of simple objects and common places, taken in such a way that forces you to look closer and reconsider their place in your mind. Whether it’s a fresh-picked bouquet of wild flowers arranged with indifference in pitcher, or a small, almost invisible door blanketed by a massive brick wall, they are often subplots to the central characters of light and shadow.

The photos are the work of Elizabeth Matheson, Hillsborough native and resident whose work has earned awards and exhibitions; and who has been featured in magazines and books. 

But these daily fun-size servings of artistic bliss are not in books, magazines, or an exhibit. They’re on social media. Matheson’s photographs are in collections at the N.C. Museum of Art, the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill; and Duke University. And now they’re on Instagram and Facebook.

“This whole series really is because of the pandemic,” Matheson said, “And thanks to a cellphone camera. That has liberated me because I’m old and I’m lazy and I wouldn’t be carrying around a tripod on these walks, or even now a digital camera feels like a burden. I’m just getting over the liberation that this little camera can bring me because it’s just unmediated technical fumblings, or thought. There it is. Snap. I don’t have to think about it.”

Matheson said in March 2020, when the lockdown began, she realized she wouldn’t be able to see anyone unless she walked out her door. So, she began walking, and somehow seeing her birthplace anew.

“As I walked further and further afield I made discoveries in Hillsborough where I grew up that I never saw and I’m still making these discoveries,” she said. “On a short leash, if you’re awake and alert, every square foot of Hillsborough has its delight.”

If you follow any of Matheson’s social media accounts, you’re likely to spot photos of places you’ve walked by thousands of times, only to “favorite” the image yourself, or setting off on your own to snap a photos of the place. And that’s where Instagram diverges from master craft. Unlike many cellphone photographers, Matheson doesn’t bother browsing the ever-growing library of filters that are included with social media platforms, preferring instead to do minimal editing. She takes the more straightforward approach of looking and waiting for the right moment.

“Light informs everything,” Matheson said. “Beatifies the ordinary. And then it’s gone. Midnight strikes and it’s back to being Cinderella. Something that I have passed a thousand times will have its moment. Thank you, I’m glad to see it.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, walking and photography have been nearly inseparable for Matheson. She said she’s not so much on a mission as she is doing something she looks forward to each day. Something that was far more difficult when she used to lug a heavy camera and the heavier equipment and attachments. This is a key feature for the ‘liberation’ she attributes to cellphone cameras.

“I discovered West Hillsborough, which it’s my go-to place,” she said. “Just delightful, wonderful backyards. Wonderful, quirky, expressive yards. Lots of sky and wonderful geometry that you can actually see at different times of day, different times of the year.”

Matheson said she has hopes to publish at least one collection of her photo walks. An expansive collection of her work will be the subject of an exhibit in October at Cassilhaus, and curated by locals Kent Corely and Lori Vrba.