Thoughts on Gregory Crewdson…

I think it is fair to say that if you have a reasonably engaged relationship with contemporary photographic art practice that you will be aware of the work of Gregory Crewdson. You will have an awareness of its cinematic quality, its disconcerting narratives, large scale production values and maybe know a little of the man himself.

If you can tick a few of these I am not surprised, but if you cannot tick them all then please let me put some meat on the bone. The Gagosian Gallery (his dealer) website provides this information. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Crewdson is a graduate of SUNY Purchase and the Yale University School of Art, where he is now director of graduate studies in photography. He lives and works in New York and Massachusetts. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has produced a succession of widely acclaimed bodies of work, from Natural Wonder (1992–97) to Cathedral of the Pines (2013–14). Beneath the Roses (2003–08), a series of pictures that took nearly ten years to complete—and which employed a crew of more than one hundred people—was the subject of the 2012 feature documentary Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, by Ben Shapiro (you can read an interview with Shapiro here You can watch the film here

The gallery describes Crewdson’s work like this. Gregory Crewdson’s photographs have entered the American visual lexicon, taking their place alongside the paintings of Edward Hopper and the films of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch as indelible evocations of a silent psychological interzone between the everyday and the uncanny. Often working with a large team, Crewdson typically plans each image with meticulous attention to detail, orchestrating light, color, and production design to conjure dreamlike scenes infused with mystery and suspense. While the small-town settings of many of Crewdson’s images are broadly familiar, he is careful to avoid signifiers of identifiable sites and moments, establishing a world outside time.

Crewdson is more succinct in his description of his own work, “What I am interested in is that moment of transcendence, where one is transported into another place, into a perfect, still world.”

Crewdson’s work is well considered, it sells in book and print form and is highly collectable. It touches elements of mass market popular culture in its cinematic sense of disfunction, an environment that collectors may not wish to be a part of but are happy to experience vicariously. An America that America does not promote but one that we have been sold through auteur’s using their own childhood’s as source material. The deep, dark under belly of American culture.

His images are not easy to deconstruct, and yet they seem to speak to what may be an unexpected audience. I’ll talk about that audience soon but first lets look into the mechanics of a Crewdson image. In an article title What Camera Does Gregory Crwedson Use? we learn that “Gregory Crewdson’s main camera is a Phase One digital medium format camera. In the film days, Crewdson used a Sinar P2 or F 8×10″ film cameras loaded with Kodak Porta 160 or 400 NC film. Crewdson used 210mm or 300mm lenses, which on the 8×10 format works out to be 27mm lens and 39mm, respectively.”

In an article titled An Interview with Gregory Crewdson on Petapixel, Crewdson reveals some of his lighting process when he says that, “It’s all continuous light, and it’s very elaborately staged. One of our hallmarks is having big lights in lifts, like daylight. Yes, it was hard, but you know what? The thing that people just don’t quite ever completely understand is that the process started off very organically. It started off slowly, and the small group became a larger group. Then slowly but surely, we put together a team over the years, and suddenly you’re working with a crew. For me, this is the way I know how to make pictures.” Crewdson works with a big crew and a Director of Photography, his productions are big budget and meticulous in their attention to detail.They require research and planning.

In short his images are not easy to produce or replicate.

They are admired, enjoyed and collected but they are not easy to do, and yet he is the photographer whom I hear most often referenced by young photographers. Photographers without the budgets, equipment or experience required to create the very work they hope to emulate. Photographers who have yet to truly understand or be taught the narrative power of visual storytelling, who have never seen a film by Hitchcock or Lynch let a lone a painting by Hopper. Photographers who have never travelled the industrial, dysfunctional heartland of the United States either in person, in word or in song.

So what is it that they see in the work of Gregory Crewdson that gives them a sense of connection? I think the answer may lie in the words of Crewdson himself in the Petapixel interview I previously mentioned. He say this “Every artist comes of age, and when you come of age in the early 20s, you’re sort of set with the issues and consents for the rest of your life. You don’t really change much from that moment on.”

This idea of settling on a narrative for a sustained body of work at such a formative age may go part of the way to explain the fascination with Crewdson during the formative period of a photographers awakening to the possibility of the medium. But I think it is in this further comment that the basis for the connection lies, “If I knew exactly what that story was, I wouldn’t have to make the pictures. I do feel that part of the story, or part of the central tenor of that story, is a search for connection or a search for home, a search for some kind of connection outside of yourself — some sensible sense of order.”

That sense of searching for a connection outside of yourself, looking for where you ‘fit’, is central to the teenage angst of identity. That search for an identity as the transformation from child to adult takes place. I wonder if this is what so many young photographers see in Crewdson’s images. I hope so. I hope that they see something more in the images than technical perfection or production based excellence. The reason why I mention these two facets of his work is that I am aware that his images are often used as examples of these very things when teaching post-production techniques.

Crewdson often uses multiple exposures to form one image, his large pre-production, and production budget is matched by his post-production budget. His images are therefore examplars of the post-production art and his team of retouchers the masters of such work. Again this is not easy to re-produce and to show this work to young photographers hoping to conjure up some post-production magic could be seen as the equivalent of showing someone learning to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and telling them to get on with it.

I have to admit that I do not enjoy the work of Gregory Crewdson, but I can admire it. I cannot connect with his sense of isolation, and aesthetic perfection, but that doesn’t matter. What is important is that people do, however what I do get from his work is a sense of gateway, the suggestion of other world that I could discover. It is this possibility that I hope that young photographers could find also. They may have to be pointed in certain directions by others but the clues as to where to travel are there.

Those destinations may include novelists, songwriters, film directors, playwrights and of course other photographers. They would not include post-production teams, casting directors and location finders. So the next time someone says to you that they like the work of Gregory Crewdson, or that you recommend his work to someone why not open up the conversation away from photography and embrace the narrative within his work, explore the personal and use his images to teach more than the obvious than sits within the frame.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021


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