Research points – Gregory Crewdson

Gregory Crewdson is an American artist working in the medium of photography. I use that form of words because ‘photographer’ is not an adequate description given the kind of large-production operation that he has put on from ‘Twilight‘ (1998-2001) onwards. Indeed he says that he hardly touches the camera, and the credits list for ‘Twilight‘ (Crewdson and Moody 2002) list three ‘camera operators’ and a ‘director of photography’. It is probably best to think of him as similar to a film producer, applying the same type of organisation to a single image as to a movie. It is no surprise that his influences include Hitchcock and Spielberg (and the painter Edward Hopper) (Wikipedia)

In Crewdson’s tableaux series, ‘Twilight‘, ‘Beneath the Roses‘, ‘Sanctuary‘ and ‘Cathedral of the Pines‘,  no part of the mise-en-scène is left to chance. Some tableaux are shot on location (scouted) and some, indoors, on a movie sound stage. Many of the buildings are constructed sets. Props are bought in and listed in the ‘credits’; in Twilight, there is even a credit for a ‘bug wrangler’, presumably dealing with the butterflies and other insects that have been imported (and supplier credited). Scenes are lit with movie lighting and shot on an 8×10 camera.

Crewdson’s images have a unique look, slightly menacing in a Spielberg way, with great detail and a muted colour palette. They all have a sense of concealed narrative; as spectators, we can be sure that there is a story but we are intrigued about how the situation arose.

We are asked to view a YouTube video, then respond to following questions.

Unfortunately, the referenced video is flagged by YouTube as ‘no longer available’. I watched the following instead, but the set questions seem a little non sequitur as a result.

Gregory Crewdson (Photography DOCUMENTARY Film)

Photographers in Focus: Gregory Crewdson

Gregory Crewdson – Close Up – Ovation

Do you think there is more to this work than aesthetic beauty?

I am not sure that Crewdson’s work has beauty in the traditional ‘skin-deep’ sense. When I first saw the Cathedral of the Pines images, I was vaguely irritated at the amount of effort that had been expended to produce something rather banal (technically perfect but banal nonetheless). It was over a period of several weeks that I realised that my subconscious was still working on them and I wanted to see more. I bought ‘Twilight‘ and have made a point of looking out Crewdson references on YouTube and elsewhere on the web.

Do you think Crewdson succeeds in making his work ‘psychological’? What does this mean?

I assume this is a reference to a comment in the missing video.

Several commentators (eg Searle 2005 and Moody (in Crewdson and Moody 2002)) note that Crewdson’s father was a psychologist with consulting rooms in the basement of the family house. It is variously told that the young Crewdson would press his ear to the floor to listen, or that he would imagine doing so. This is sometimes given as an explanation for an interest in the psychology of the characters in his photographs.

Many of these characters appear pensive or thoughtful; where there are multiple figures in an image, I feel that they are close to each other but do not communicate. Each has his or her own thoughts that would only be expressed on the psychologist’s couch -and maybe not even there.

I regard the images as surreal, in the sense of stimulating the subconscious using the tropes of dreams. The nudity or the underclothes worn by some characters are a classic dream trope, as is the sense of being in a situation without a clear idea of how one got there. The detachment of characters from each other may indicate that each one is part of the other’s dream, rather than being fully ‘real’. The analysis of dreams is, of course, a classic technique in psychiatry.

What is your main goal when making pictures? Do you think there’s anything wrong with making beauty your main goal? Why or why not? 

Broadly, I make pictures because I like to make pictures (circular, I know but as good a reason as any) and I prefer to make the sort of pictures that I want to look at. That may be a roundabout way of saying that I am looking for beauty or amusement in my surroundings and trying to express it.

Some of my images are entered in camera club competitions, although none are made specifically for that purpose. (I like them; if the judge agrees, that is a bonus)

I see nothing wrong with making beauty a goal in my photography, despite some elitist comments that I have seen on OCA social media about images without deeper meaning or significance. All images have their place, whether it be the gallery wall, the front page of the newspaper, or the living room wall. There are photographs that I can appreciate in  a gallery but I would not want in my home.

The beautiful photographs, the ones we hang above the fireplace or on the bedroom wall, have a special quality of their own. These are the images that we are prepared to invite into our homes, love and live with for years at a time, rather than for ten minutes as part of a gallery exhibition. That makes them significant in their own way, a way that we would be wrong to ignore.

References

Crewdson, G., and Moody, R. (2002) Twilight . New York: Abrams.

Guggenheim Foundation (undated) Collection Online: Gregory Crewdson [online] Available at <https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/gregory-crewdson&gt; [Accessed 5 March 2018].

Photographers’ Gallery (2017) Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines [online] Available at <http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/content/gregory-crewdson-cathedral-pines&gt; [Accessed 4 March 2018].

Searle, A. (2005) Too much information [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2005/apr/19/photography&gt; [Accessed 6 March 2018].

Wikipedia (2017) Gregory Crewdson [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Crewdson&gt; [Accessed 4 March 2018].

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Mise-en-scène – Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman is an American artist, using photography as a medium as a reaction to the perceived limitations of painting and because “I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead” (Wikipedia). The majority of her work uses herself as subject and explores the nature of portraits as representation and the commonplace depictions of women in popular culture.

It is her late-1970s series ‘Untitled Film Stills‘ that brought her to fame and show the most realistic mise-en-scène. These images show single female characters in costume and settings reminiscent of Italian neorealism or American film noir (Wikipedia). Costumes and props were bought second-hand and most of the indoor shots were taken in her apartment. Indoor shots are self-portraits with a long shutter release. Outdoor shots used another photographer with Sherman directing (Tate). It may be that their success as representing film publicity stills is a result of imperfect scenery-building.

The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told. (Sherman, quoted by Rosenberg)

Sherman’s later work is less realistic, placed somewhere between parody and caricature, and rather darker in character. Her make-up is more obvious and often grotesque, and the settings are either very plain sets or back-projections. The MoMA website shows some of her parodies of centrefolds, society portraits and classical paintings.

References

MoMA (2012) Cindy Sherman [online] Available at <https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/#/0/&gt; [Accessed 4 March 2018].

Rosenberg, B. (2018) Cindy Sherman Artist Overview and Analysis [online] Available at <http://www.theartstory.org/artist-sherman-cindy.htm&gt; [Accessed 4 March 2018].

Tate (undated) Cindy Sherman [online] Available at <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/cindy-sherman-1938&gt; [Accessed 4 March 2018].

Wikipedia (2018) Cindy Sherman [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cindy_Sherman&gt; [Accessed 4 March 2018].

Mise-en-scène – Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hustlers

Philip-Lorca diCorcia is an American photographer known for flashlight ‘street’ images and constructed tableaux. ‘Hustlers‘ was his first cohesive series project, conceived partly as a reaction to the funding policies of the National Endowment for the Arts which were influenced by late 1980s right-wing attitudes to AIDS and homosexuality. (Bicker 2013)

The premise of the series is simple; diCorcia would set up a carefully stages and lit tableau, then locate a male prostitute as subject – paying his going rate for ‘services’ as a model fee. This is another example of work (cf. Taryn Simon or Paul Seawright) in which accompanying text – in this case the titles of the images – is vital to understanding the series. The title of each image is in the same format, the subject’s name, age, place of birth and typical ‘fee’

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source: time.com

This, for instance, is ‘Eddie Anderson, 21 years old; Houston, Texas; $20

The work is non-sexual, paying lip-service to the NEA stipulation that funded work should not be obscene, but subversive in that the subjects’ fees were paid from NEA funds.

The tension in the images comes from the juxtaposition of contrived locations (carefully arranged and lit in advance) and real-world subjects who were reportedly rather unsure about the transaction (Davis 2014).

References

Bicker, P. (2013) Trade: Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hollywood Hustlers [online] Available at <http://time.com/3803327/trade-philip-lorca-dicorcias-hollywood-hustlers-drug-addicts-and-drifters/&gt; [Accessed 28 February 2018].

Davies, L. (2014) How the camera saved the photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia [online] Available at <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/10602637/How-the-camera-saved-the-photographer-Philip-Lorca-diCorcia.html&gt; [Accessed 28 February 2018].

Wikipedia (2018) Philip-Lorca diCorcia [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip-Lorca_diCorcia&gt; [Accessed 28 February 2018].

Influences – Taryn Simon

Taryn Simon is an American conceptual artist, working across multiple disciplines including photography. The work that we are directed to by the course notes is The Innocents, a series of photographs of men who have served time on a Death Row, or part of a life sentence, for crimes which they did not commit. In most cases, men were convicted on the basis of mistaken identification evidence influenced by photographs. The series is intended to question the way in which exposure to apparently credible photography can influence memory and eyewitness evidence.

For each photograph, Simon takes her subject to a location significant to the trial (scenes of crime or arrest, or alibi locations) and makes an environmental portrait. There is no real mise-en-scène involved, and individually the images are rather banal. The power of the series comes from the number of images/examples and their accompanying anchorage text.

Mise-en-scène – Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter is a British artist/photographer, living and working in Hackney. He is an Honorary Fellow of the RPS and was the first photographer to have a one-man exhibition at the National Gallery (Wikipedia 2017). His artist website is more comprehensive than most, carrying his important works in galleries, biographical information, a blog and a series of essays. It appears to be a favourite with OCA students as many of the comments and ‘pingbacks’ come from EYV and C&N learning blogs. (I suspect that his website has WordPress underpinnings)

Much of Hunter’s work is influenced by the style of the ‘Old Masters’ of painting. In some cases, such as Woman Reading a Possession Order, there is a deliberate reference to a master work (in this case, Vermeer’s ‘Woman Reading a Letter‘). In others, it is the style and lighting, rather than subject matter that are referenced (Hunter 2011). The series Unheralded Stories is based on such artistic references and the accompanying text on the website names some of the ‘originals’

Hunter’s work is mainly centred on the people of the poorer parts of Hackney, with many titles or themes deriving from stories in the Hackney Gazette. For instance, the project ‘Living in Hell and Other Stories‘ takes lurid headlines such as “Naked Death Plunge” or “Murder, Two Men Wanted” and constructs tableaux around the event or its imagined backstory.

‘Woman Reading a Possession Order’ is part of the project Persons Unknown (the standard addressee of a possession order against squatters) arising from Hunter’s own time living in a squatter community. It is an attempt to challenge the common stereotype of squatters as feckless, unclean and generally objectionable by portraying them with dignity.

Hunter’s mise-en-scene does not rely on stage sets or actors. Photographs are made on location and with the local residents that they depict. Rather, it is about taking time to get everything right, the light, the composition, the ‘props’ (a.k.a. clutter of everyday life, rearranged) and the people. Partly it is an equipment-based approach. I was aware that he uses a large-format camera but had assumed that (like Wall, Crewdson or Gursky) this was to achieve image quality. However, there is a deeper motive as quoted in an essay by Tim Birch (2012) Large format working takes time, care  and commitment.

“I really wanted to show that the subjects I was dealing with were as important as the rich and famous people, in the same way as Vermeer.” (Hunter, quoted by Birch 2012)

References

Birch, T. (2012) Website Essay [online] Available at <http://www.tomhunter.org/website-essay&gt; [Accessed 28 February 2018]

Hunter, T. (2011) Under the Influence [online] Available at <http://www.tomhunter.org/essay-under-the-influence/&gt; [Accessed 27 February 2018].

Pulver, A. (2009) Photographer Tom Hunter’s best shot [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/nov/04/photography-tom-hunter-best-shot&gt; [Accessed 27 February 2018]

Wikipedia (2017) Tom Hunter (artist) [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Hunter_(artist)&gt; [Accessed 27 February 2018].

Mise-en-scène – Hannah Starkey

This is the second time that Hannah Starkey’s work has been discussed in this blog. On the previous occasion, in the section on self-portraits, I had to add a question mark. This time, it is not necessary.

Once again, the course compilers (course notes p111) have selected one of Starkey’s ‘self-portrait’ window reflections (which are neither self-portraits nor particularly good photographs) as an illustration, which is a pity because she has a lot of very good mise-en-scène work which would be a much better fit.

Using actors within carefully considered settings, Hannah Starkey’s photographs reconstruct scenes from everyday life with the concentrated stylisation of film.‘ (Ewing, undated). In this case, the settings are ‘considered’ rather than ‘constructed’. My impression is that Starkey shoots ‘on location’ but probably brings lighting with her.

Starkey’s images, mostly named ‘Untitled’ with a month and year, but no location or name information, depict women in apparently mundane urban locations and routine activities. She describes her work as “explorations of everyday experiences and observations of inner city life from a female perspective”. Mirrors and/or windows often feature – which may be where the ‘Lady of Shalott’ references originate. For instance, we see two women reflected in mirrors in a public lavatory, a woman and a girl in a pub or two women in a café with a mirrored wall. All of these examples are scenes that could have been captured from life by a street photographer but are, in some undefined way, given a filmic quality. We are absolved from voyeurism because we are told that the scene is staged. They are still slightly uncomfortable to view and I, once again, get the impression of seeing the last few film frames before the monster appears.

There is a parallel between these images and those of Cindy Sherman, although Sherman uses self-portraiture rather than models (some hired, some plucked from the street). In both cases, it is the very carefully considered lighting and framing that set the tone for reading the image.

References

Ewing, W. (undated) Selected works by Hannah Starkey [online] Available at <http://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/hannah_starkey.htm&gt; [Accessed 20 Feb 2018].

Mise-en-scène – Jeff Wall

The best-known of Jeff Wall’s photographs are his staged tableaux which he started making in 1978 and represent complete control of the mise-en-scène. Cotton(2014, 50) identifies two threads: an ‘ornate style in which the artifice of the photograph is made obvious by the fantastic nature of his stories’ (typified by Insomnia and the Invisible Man image from the course notes p110) and the staging of much slighter events such as Mimic which appears to be a re-staging of an HCB-style ‘decisive moment’.

Bright (2011, 79) notes Wall’s background in Art History provides him with a sophisticated knowledge in of painting and the stylistic an compositional devices of art. This can be seen in, among others, A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)  (modelled on Hokusai’s Travellers Caught in a Sudden breeze at Ejiri) and Picture for Women, in which the female figure is modelled on Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergères

In 2005, Tate Modern held a major exhibition of Wall’s photographs 1978-2004, details of which are still available online and are the source of many of the links used in this posting.

Wall’s presentation of many of these images, as massive backlit transparencies (intermediate in size between Crewdson and Gursky) gives them a definite presence because it is unusual (more often used for advertising displays than galleries) cause the viewer to reconsider the role of photography, as does his used of digital manipulation and montaging since the 1990s. Some images, such as Mimic and (arguably) Invisible Man and Insomnia, could be shot in a single take once the ‘stage’ is set and lit. Others, such as Dead Troops Talk and A Sudden Gust of Wind are photomontages of multiple components shot separately, sometimes months apart. Even something as apparently simple as A view from an apartment was shot over a period between May 2004 and March 2005.

The Tate collection includes an early paste-up study for A Sudden Gust of Wind, described on their website by Elizabeth Manchester (2003).  Each figure, each sheet of blown paper and each branch from which the trees are constructed, is referenced back to its original sheet of large-format film. There are pencil annotations and calculations in the margins and the overall sheet is overlaid with a grid of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines for tweaking the composition. Although this image is not intended to be realistic, it is clear that a major amount of pre-planning goes into all aspects of producing it.

Similarly, the quote in the course notes (from the Tate exhibition, referenced) reminds us that the Invisible Man image involved hanging 1369 light-bulbs, in addition to carefully constructing the apartment set and contriving its clutter.

Although, maybe, not as ‘pure’ as a single-shot image, Wall’s work definitely fits into the description ‘constructed reality’ and will be a major influence on my response to assignment 5.

References

Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now.. revised edn. London, UK: Thames & Hudson.

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Third edn. London: Thames and Hudson.

Manchester, E. (2003) Jeff Wall  Study for ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai)’ [online] Available at <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wall-study-for-a-sudden-gust-of-wind-after-hokusai-t07235&gt; [Accessed 20 Feb 2018].

Tate Modern (2005) Jeff Wall Photographs 1978-2004, room guide [online] Available at <http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/jeff-wall/jeff-wall-room-guide&gt; [Accessed 20 Feb 2018].