Every now and then I like to write something about an artist who’s work I’ve completely fallen for over the years. This time around, I want to talk to you about American photographer Gregory Crewdson. His famous, elaborately staged photographs bear more resemblances to a movie still than anything we’re expecting from photography. To be able to make these images, he works with a set and crew that can compare to that of a movie production. Everything is carefully planned. Streets are closed off, numerous lights put into place and models and props are put in position down to the centimeter. Realizing just one of these photo’s takes weeks. Crewdson doesn’t take photo’s, he makes them. They’re breathtaking images, that would leave anyone in awe, but their power stretches beyond their beauty. You’ll hear a lot of people say that Gregory Crewdson’s work has changed the course photography forever. I don’t think anyone could argue with that. At least this much is certain: his photography has, without a doubt, changed me forever.
WHY GREGORY CREWDSON
When I was younger I was convinced that I wanted to be a movie director. Movies always seemed to have a big impact on me. For the duration of the film, I would feel part of a whole different reality. A visit to the local cinema would leave me with a strange feeling, that might be best described as a small and pleasant existential crisis. It felt like I had just experienced all these amazing things, had changed and therefor had to find myself again, in some way. On our way back I would rest my head against the car window, stare off into the distance and let myself drift off into fantasy. That was what I wanted to be able to do too: creating a moment that, regardless of it’s staged nature, could have a real impact on someone.
When I was about 15 years old, I started to learn more about photography. Like movies had done before, it left me feeling a bit overwhelmed, but this time I was struck by the power of a single image. I decided then that instead of director, I wanted to become a photographer and try to put as much depth into a single photo, as a movie did in two hours. If theres anyone that succeeds in doing exactly that, over and over again, it’s Gregory Crewdson. When I discovered his work, my heart jumped a little. Not just out of love for the stunning imagery, but also because it confirmed my ideas about the power of a single image.
I also strongly identified with the way Crewdson approaches his artwork. The fact that I wanted to be a director at frist, might also have been due to the kind of person I am: a perfectionist and slight controlfreak, obsessed with a persuit of making the images in my head visible to others. And not just roughly, but exactly how I imagine them to be (an impossible task). That’s probably why, apart from being the director, I also wanted to be cameraman, scriptwriter and actrice, so I would have complete control. I’ll admit, that would’ve been a horribly egocentric affair, but maybe that’s just part of an artistic pursuit. Crewdson himself calls the whole proces of making art, an act of faith. There’s this will to bring something into existence that means something to the world. He also mentions how the only real reason to do it, is because you have to. It’s not necessarily a choice.
“For me the most powerful moment in the whole process is when everything comes together and there is that perfect beautifull still moment. And for that instance, my life makes sense.”
– Gregory Crewdson from the documentary: Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encouters (2012)
WHAT WE’RE SEEING
Crewdson’s images seem to show us a dark side of the American Dream. Most of his photo’s are taken in the old factory towns of Massachusetts where the companies that used to provide a lot jobs, have since left. There’s a tangible emptiness in these towns which is also represented in Crewdsons pictures. Not just in the suroundings, but in the figures in those surroundings. His work to me always seemed like a representation of that still moment of alienation that you can sometimes find yourself struck by. That moment where you sort of take everything in that’s around you and think “What the hell is all this and why am I here?”.
Modern-day life can seem a bit overwhelming. There’s so much going on. There’s stores with brightly colored signs, filled with stuff we can buy with our coins, paper money or plastic cards. There’s metal machines on wheels that we can drive. There’s trashcans, streetlights and benches that maybe we don’t spend enough time sitting on. And then there’s houses. Houses with their green lawns, where people have surrounded themselves with their own stuff. There’s people that seem to have it better than ourselves, and then there’s people who seem worse off than us. Wether this is really true, we’ll never really know. Even the seemingly lovely surroundings where Crewdsons figures find themselves in, don’t seem to be able to distract them from their personal alienation with it all. It doesn’t seem to be able to fill the emptiness they’re feeling. Even the photo’s with multiple people on them breathe a loneliness. It’s like we’re being reassured that we’re all alone, we never really know someone and that, at the end of the day, we’re left to only our own consciousness. It’s an eery moment, but also incredibly beautiful.
A few seconds later we wake from our little still moment. What was I doing again? Right. And on we go.
An introduction to Gregory Crewdson
Gregory Crewdson was born in 1962 in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a psychoanalyst and as a child Crewdson would often try to listen in on the conversations his father was having with his clients. The stories captivated him and encouraged his imagination, since he could not see the person that was talking on the other side of the wall. When he was ten years old, his father took him to see the Diane Arbus retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Looking back, that’s when Crewdson thinks he started wanting to be a photographer. As a teenager however, he was more focussed on music. He was part of a rock band called The Speedies whose most famous song, strikingly, was called “Let Me Take Your Photo” and was written by Gregory. It wasn’t until he fell in love with a girl that was a photographer, that he soon also fell for the medium of photography. In 1985 he graduated from his BA in Fine Art at SUNY Purchase. Later he also received his Master of Fine Arts from Yale University, where he now teaches. His education focussed on the tradition of documentary photography, but at the same time he visited shows in New York by artists that used photography in an opposite way. After seeing the movie Blue Velvet, by David Lynch, Crewdsons images changed forever and he started combining documentary photography with cinematic light. He since has taken a lot of inspiration from movies, trying to produce images that contain both elements of everyday life and sense of theatricality.
A selection of his work
This series is where Crewdson first starts shooting from an elevated viewpoint. We’re looking at streets and backyards from Lee, Massachusetts where some strange things seem to be going on. In this early series of work he was working on a (relatively) small scale, and didn’t apply for permits in order to take his photographs. He managed to get a police car in the last photo simply by alarming the authorities that someone was blocking the street.
For this series, next to productions he did on location, Crewdson also shot images in a soundstage, allowing him full control of the set and the light. These elaborately styled environments are covered in a magical, cinematic light. The images present us with seemingly social alienated individuals, mostly within a home environment. The main characters in this series of work seem to be looking for something, but not quite able to find it or even know what it is they seek.
BENEATH THE ROSES, 2003-2008
Beneath The Roses has become the most famous series of images by Gregory Crewdson. He made these works during a turbulent time in his personal life. Crewdson’s marriage ended in a complicated divorce and he moved away from New York, where he had always lived. According to the artist, the emotions from that time are reflected in the work. The pictures in this series were his biggest productions up till then, the one with the street coverend in snow (Brief Encounter) being the most demanding one.
Sanctuary marks the first time that Crewdson leaves America to shoot a project. The series was shot at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, Italy. The huge terrain of movie sets was founded in 1937 by Mussolini and is often associated with the famous Italian director Frederico Fellini. The Sanctuary photos feel different from his previous work; it’s leaning more towards the tradition of documentary photography. But, as always, there’s a tension between reality and fiction and a strong link to the film industry.
CATHEDRAL OF THE PINES, 2013-2014
For this latest project Crewdson chose Becket, Massachusetts as location for his images. It’s the town his wife Juliana’s family is from. He describes this to possibly be the first time the two previously separate worlds of his art and his personal life, overlap. While the production of Beneath the Roses was quite open, this time he chose to close productions off to the public. The surroundings in the photo’s feel a lot more remote than those we saw in Hover, Twillght and Beneath the Roses. There’s a tension between intimacy and isolation.
Gagosian Gallery website
Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters. Dir. Shapiro, Ben. Ben Shapiro Productions, LLC, 2012. Documentary (get it here)
Burnett, Craig & Crewdson, Gregory. In a Lonely Place. Hatje Cantz, 2011
Tylevich, Katya & Eastham, Ben. My Life as a Work of Art. Laurence King Publishing, 20161
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