Eric T. Kunsman (b. 1975) was born and raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. While in high school, he was heavily influenced by the death of the steel industry and its place in American history. The exposure to the work of Walker Evans during this time hooked Eric onto photography. Eric had the privilege to study under Lou Draper, who became Eric’s most formative mentor. He credits Lou with influencing his approach as an educator, photographer, and contributing human being.
Eric holds his MFA in Book Arts/Printmaking from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia and holds an MS in Electronic Publishing/Graphic Arts Media, BS in Biomedical Photography, BFA in Fine Art photography, all from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York.
Currently, he is a photographer and book artist based out of Rochester, New York. Eric works at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) as an Assistant Professor in the Visual Communications Studies Department at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and is an adjunct professor for the School of Photographic Arts & Sciences.
In addition to lectures, he provides workshops on topics including his artistic practice, digital printing, and digital workflow processes. He provided industry seminars for the highly regarded Printing Applications Lab at RIT. His photographs and books are exhibited internationally and are in several collections. He currently owns Booksmart Studio, which is a fine art digital printing studio specializing in numerous techniques and services for photographers and book artists on a collaborative basis.
Eric’s work has been exhibited in over 35 solo exhibitions at such venues as Nicolaysen Art Museum, Hoyt Institute of Fine Art, Los Angeles Center for Digital Art, and numerous university galleries. His work has also been a part of over 150 group exhibitions over the past four years, including exhibitions at the Center for Photography, A. Smith Gallery, SPIVA, San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, Spartanburg Museum of Art, Atlanta Photography Group, CEPA Gallery, Site: Brooklyn, Colorado Photographic Arts Center, Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, and many more.
Eric was named one of 10 B&W photographers to watch of 2018 by BWGallerist; B&W Best Photographers of the Year 2019 by Dodho Magazine; won the Association of Photography (UK) Gold Award for Open Series in 2019; Finalist, Top 200 Critical Mass 2019, 2020, 2021; Top 15 Photographers for the Rust Belt Biennial; and Lensculture B&W Jurors’ Pick 2021. His Project Felicific Calculus was also awarded a Warhol Foundations Grant through CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, NY. Eric’s work has also been published in magazines such as; Bloomberg Businessweek, LensWork, Dodho, B&W Photography, Analog Explorations, All About Photo, Black+White Photography (UK), Dek Unu, along with online articles by Analog Forever Magazine, Catalyst: Interview, Texas Photo Society, and others.
There's no “given,” formula for what demands Eric’s focus as a photographer. Eric is as drawn to the landscapes and neglected towns of the American southwest as he is to the tensions of struggling rustbelt cities in the U.S. northeast. Eric is attracted to objects left behind, especially those that hint at a unique human narrative, a story waiting to be told. Eric’s current work explores one of those relics: working payphones hidden in plain sight throughout the neighborhood near his studio in Rochester, NY. Associates suggested they signified a high crime area. This project's shown Eric something very different.
Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Class, Race, & Economics in Rochester, NY
The felicific calculus is an algorithm formulated by jurist and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) for calculating the moral rightness of an action by balancing the probable pleasures and pains that it would produce. Bentham, a utilitarian philosopher, believed this calculus could, in principle, help determine the moral status of any considered act.
In 2017, I relocated my studio to a different part of Rochester, NY. Colleagues immediately started making comments along the lines of: "...that area's a war zone." My experience with the new neighborhood was positive, so I wanted to discover what visual cues others might be seeing as indicators of a dangerous environment. Several people had mentioned the number of payphones in the area, inferring that only criminals use payphones these days.
There really were a lot of payphones in my neighborhood. I began documenting them, and quickly saw that far from being used by criminals, these phones served as a lifeline for some of the poorest residents in the area. Looking deeper, I found the story behind Rochester's payphones reflected an unusually altruistic ‘felicific calculus' by Frontier Communications. Instead of focusing on profits, they had decided to maintain the payphones in poorer neighborhoods for the good of the community.
Many policymakers have opted to view payphones as a social indicator of crime, unfortunately leading to ignorant or even dangerous decisions.
In Detroit, Michigan, politicians had all public payphones removed without studying or surveying their actual use.They simply assumed the criminal connection. This decision was based on a further assumption that everyone today must own a mobile phone. Decision-makers lacking facts or any real understanding of issues facing citizens from a different economic class just acted on a misperception.
Witnessing that type of reflexive judgement from my colleagues drove me to educate myself. I photographed payphones and mapped their locations, then overlaid them with census maps showing economic status, ethnicity, age and sex, and the city crime map. There was an immediate, direct correlation between the poverty level and location of the payphones. Areas with the most payphones coincided with Rochester neighborhoods where the average family incomes are lower than $20,000 annually. There was also no correlation with high crime neighborhoods.
Through Felicific Calculus I hope to challenge negative perceptions of social markers that conflate poverty with crime. Though they are relics to most of us, payphones remain important for residents trapped in lower economic circumstances.
Life-Lines Throughout the United States
This body of work is a series in conjunction with my project “Felicific Calculus: Technology as a Social Marker of Race, Class, & Economics in Rochester, NY,” to demonstrate how many cities throughout the US are facing the same situation. Many individuals are being left behind by technology or labeled throughout the United States due to relying on outdated technology. This series is meant to support the Rochester, NY, project to demonstrate what is occurring in the United States. “Life-Lines Throughout the United States” is a topographic survey of payphones as social markers throughout the United States, along with interactive census data to help visualize the socioeconomic relationship between the individual photograph and each location.