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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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].