Gregory Crewdson – Cathedral of the Pines

For the first time ever, the Photographers’ Gallery have turned over all three principal gallery spaces to a single exhibition, Cathedral of the Pines by Gregory Crewdson. I visited on the first day, in June, and it has taken me two months to shake off my writer’s block and blog something about it. There are multiple threads to discussing a Crewdson project, so let’s just dive in and have a go (in no particular order).

First, there is the image quality. No reproduction on a website or in a book is going to come close. These are large-format images, presented slightly larger than 900x1200mm and with pretty much front-to-back sharpness. Lighting appears natural (if slightly cool) although it is really very tightly controlled.

Second, there is the size of the production team. Many photographers are used to working alone, or having a very small team – an assistant or two to move lights around, a make-up artist and/or stylist for the model – but Crewdson works with a group of about 15 (video interview played at the exhibition), looking more like the production team of a small movie. I find I am asking myself questions about authorship; is it correct to name Crewdson alone, or would it be more honest to have something like movie end-credits displayed somewhere. My questions could be exemplified and summarised in one, “Why does a photographer need a Director of Photography?”

Third, and by no means least, there are the images themselves. We find ourselves in the small town of Beckett, Massachusetts and its surrounding pine forests. The cast of actors (a better word than ‘models’ given the filmic, big production style) show us a version of rural American life, but distinctly surreal or dream-like; Indeed, the amount of nudity reflects a classic dream trope. The actors seem isolated, slightly awkward, and universally deadpan in expression. (Crewdson says his frequent instruction is “give me less”)

I am intrigued by my own changing reaction to this work. At the gallery, I was dismissive, asking myself “Why bother with a big production to shoot what are essentially snapshots?” However, over the past few weeks I have been mentally revisiting (and looking at my photographs – above – taken of the images) and reassessing. These images all have a narrative – there is a sense of a story before and after – and an attention to detail that is not, at first, apparent. I will be returning before the exhibition closes in October.

References

Photographers’ Gallery (2017) Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines [online] Available at <http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/content/gregory-crewdson-cathedral-pines&gt; [Accessed 24/8/2017].

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Joel Meyerowitz at B+H

The Beetles+Huxley exhibition Joel Meyerowitz: Towards Colour 1962-1978 presented a very different view of Meyerowitz’ work from the large-format Ground Zero images discussed previously. Unsurprisingly, given that the exhibition was mounted in conjunction with Leica, it deals with his 35mm early work before he bought his 8×10 in 1976.meyerowitzBH

Meyerowitz’ photography is largely self-taught having been inspired to pick up a camera when, as a junior art director, he was briefed to ‘supervise’ Robert Frank on a photoshoot. Being self-taught, and therefore unladen with the baggage of art-world received wisdom, he was attracted to colour from the start. As a matter of practicality, however, he carried a camera loaded with monochrome film as well as one loaded with colour, and much of his early published work is in mono.

There seem to be two threads as we look at the work chronologically. First, the move from predominantly monochrome into exclusively colour work. Meyerowitz regarded a European road trip in 1966 as his coming-of-age as an artist, and had excluded mono from his work by 1972.

Colour describes more things – more radiance, more wavelengths, more sensation. (Meyerowitz, concatenation of two quotes from the exhibition catalogue)

Second, there is a move away from the traditional ‘decisive moment’ images (epitomised by the ‘Kiss Me Stupid’ image above) to something more decentralised or non-hierarchical in which everything, including the colours, contributed equally to the image.

I was trying to unlock photography from the aesthetic of ‘the decisive moment’ – a difficult thing to give up – and to bring the photograph closer to the experience itself, which is inchoate and unresolved in ways that I had been reluctant to deal with before. (Meyerowitz, exhibition catalogue)

Although I have enjoyed Meyerowitz’ later large-format colour work, I found that my preferences in this exhibition were towards the earlier work, mono and colour. Analysing my own reaction, I believe it is because I am reluctant to let go of the concept of the decisive moment.

As always with B+H exhibitions, they make good use of a fairly small space – the photographs are close together but never feel crowded – and the catalogue is excellent value at £10.

Study Visit -Deutsche Börse and Roger Mayne at the Photographers Gallery

This was my first OCA study visit and an opportunity to meet coursemates and a tutor face-to-face. Robert Enoch and 15 students from all levels visited the Photographers Gallery to view the Roger Mayne retrospective and the shortlist for this year’s Deutsche Börse  Photography Foundation Prize.

However, first we had a peer-review and criticism session. Most of us had brought some work to show, most of it assignment work or ‘serious’ documentary. I was a bit embarrassed to be the only one with a personal project (EYV work is with assessors, and I haven’t started serious photography for C&N yet) of a more pictorial type. However, they were kind enough to say nice things about my ‘back garden macro’ project and offer some names of photographers worth researching.

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Deutsche Börse shortlist

Sophie Calle

Calle is a conceptual artist and photographer, nominated for a piece of work involving a postcard set – which is not best suited to a gallery environment. The work on display is another project ‘My mother, my cat, my father, in that order’ reacting to the deaths of her parents and her cat over a short period. It is presented as a set of photographs or objects, each juxtaposed against a piece of writing. This was the display that appealed least to my coursemates, but I found some resonance as the loss of my own parents is recent enough to have empathy.

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Awoiska van der Molen

Van der Molen makes large monochrome abstracted landscapes. Displayed without titles or indication of location, interpretation is left very much to the viewer. For instance, the darker image below is solid black and dark grey, with two white ‘scratches’. My first impression was of a volcano with narrow lava channels; on a second viewing I think I see light-trails on distant mountain roads.

With the dark and rather contrasty printing, my overall impression was of sombre, or even sinister thoughts.

It must be said that the lighting in the particular gallery (a mix of window light and spot lighting) is not ideal for viewing large semi-gloss images as it was impossible to get away from reflected highlights, as seen in the first image above.

Dana Lixenberg

Lixenberg’s project ‘Imperial Courts 1993-2015’ follows from a 1992 assignment to Los Angeles to document the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. She revisited one housing project in 1993 and made numerous further visits between 2008 and 2015, building a relationship with the community and following the lives of its residents over an extended period.

There is some ‘urban landscape’ but the majority of the images are large-format informal environmental portraits. It is interesting to view the different attitudes and body language between the male and female subjects, and to speculate on how much that was influenced by having a female photographer. The student discussion was inconclusive but this is a topic that I may revisit in a future posting.

If our group were the Deutsche Börse judges, this would be the winning project.

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Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs

This is the story of a 50,000km ‘road trip’ from Switzerland to Mongolia via Russia and various ‘Stans. Onorato and Krebs recorded the journey on a variety of analogue media including 16mm movie and 5×4 large-format film. The result is shown in a darkened room with movie and slide projectors running simultaneously.

Of the things that I saw on this visit, this is the display that spoke least to me and I dismissed it as a exercise in presentation style rather than content.

Roger Mayne retrospective

The other major exhibition at the Gallery is a retrospective of Roger Mayne’s images of street life in the 1950s and early 1960s. The majority were taken in and around South Street, North Kensington but there are also some from the Raleigh factory in Nottingham (1964) and the (then) new Park Hill estate in Sheffield (1961-65). The high-contrast monochrome style and the post-war background are similar to what the trio of Bailey, Donovan and Duffy would be doing in fashion photography a few years later. I also found some images evoking the spirit of the cartoonist Giles.

Many of the street photographs show children in unstructured play, in environments that would make a health-and-safety officer blench. This led to at least one discussion between coursemates on the topic of how children’s play is depicted then and now. Will a future historian look at the current photographic record and ask ‘Where are all the children?’. The answer is twofold, many of them are indoors in front of a computer screen but, also, photographers are afraid to take candids of children for fear of modern attitudes to ‘child protection’ (see conversation in Howarth and McLaren 2011, 236-237)

Martin Parr

As an unexpected bonus, the print sales space in the basement had a small exhibition of some of Martin Parr’s early monochrome work (he moved exclusively to colour in 1986). The quirky observation and humour were, clearly, with him from the start.

Reference

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. (2011). Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson.