Gregory Crewdson – The Search for a Perfect Moment

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Gregory Crewdson divides opinion, there is debate as to whether he is an artist, a photographer, a script writer or director; Charlotte Cotton (1) finds it significant that Twilight (2) contains an appendix on the production process thus confirming the extent to which his photography can be seen as a production issue; Sharon Boothroyd (3) suggests that Crewdson is “vague on the details” when discussing his intent and questions his motivations; whilst, Jackie Higgins (4) sees images that are “meticulously staged to present psychological states”.  Russell Banks (5) points out that because he makes rather than takes photographs we are inclined to “consider them in terms of what they are like instead of what they are”. As his photographs are referential to cinema’s popular narrative form perhaps we won’t be too surprised if it turns out that his photographs are primarily concerned with visual appeal rather than representing complex psychological narratives that go to the heart of the anxieties, fears and desires of suburban middle America.

The difficulty in assessing whether there is more to Crewdson’s work than aesthetic beauty or if he succeeds in making it psychological lies partly in the lack of comparatives. Jeff Wall constructs his photographs using sets, props and actors but the scenes evoke real places, the characters are, and act as, real people often performing themselves or someone quite like them; an approach that carries connotations of social documentary or social critique. Philip-Lorca diCorcia shares theatrical staging with both Wall and Crewdson but his work is anchored in reality, an exploration of the actions and desires of people in real-life situations often using the very people it represents. Both Wall and diCorcia are engaged in forms of dramatised documentary whereas Crewdson is unashamedly engaged in a work of fiction.

Any attempt to position Crewdson’s work within a genre of photography has to address this lack of obvious contemporaries, it being difficult to call one man a genre, and recognise the overwhelming references to the processes and aesthetics of cinema. If, instead of forcing his work into the conventions of photography, we accept that it is a derivative of cinema it becomes easier to define it as a film still, the staged summation of a movie, a genre that has its own unique characteristics, body of comparative works and recognised practitioners. Like Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (discussed here) we have to accept that Crewdson’s stills are not from or referencing a specific movie but in the same way that Sherman appropriates film noir and the stereotypical characters from mid-twentieth century cinema, Crewdson pays homage to David Lynch and Steven Spielberg.

Jeff Wall said “no picture could exist today without having a trace of the film still in it, at least no photograph” (6) and arguably Crewdson is the most complete manifestation of this idea. He has appropriated the mechanics and processes of cinema, if not in their entirety, to a such extent that the differences lie in the obvious absence of sound, time and motion rather than in style or production values; he has used these methodologies to create what he sees as single frame movies.

Susan Bright (7) argues that staged photography in general distils stories into one off images, unlike cinema which can use time to unfold the narrative, the photograph has to compress content into a single frame, what she calls to “function densely rather than chronologically”. If we shift our attention from cinema in general and focus back on the film still we find many of the same attributes. The film still is constructed in much the same way as a Crewdson tableau; the film still is not, as Steven Jacobs (6) points out, an extracted frame from the film but uses the actors, set, lighting and production mechanics of cinema to compress a narrative into a single frame that, in the film it represents, will take many minutes, or even the whole film to unfold. David Campany (8) uses the example of a film still from Rear Window which includes in a single frame all the characters from the movie, compressing the opening long take from the movie and as a result being “not so much ‘from’ Rear Window as ‘of’ it as a whole”. Jacobs (6) builds on this point explaining that Alfred Hitchcock staged his stills in a completely independent manner from his films, their purpose was to “summarise the atmosphere of the entire movie into a single still”. 

By referencing Crewdson’s work in this way we not only emphasise that his work is the child of cinema but also access the wider influences that have played on the evolution of the film still which Jacobs argues has a closer relationship to painting than it does to photography. He suggests that the film still is less connected to the decisive moment than to the pregnant moment of narrative painting which unashamedly fabricates a fictional moment to synthesise an entire action. This neatly, perhaps too neatly, brings us back to Crewdson’s interest in the paintings of Edward Hopper (9) whose use of light and the pregnant moment are clear influences in much of Crewdson’s work.

Another factor that needs to be considered is that Crewdson’s work appears to be changing. Sanctuary (10) published in 2010, is of a stage instead of being staged, forty one black and white photographs that document the semi abandoned sets of the great Cinecittà movie studio in Rome. Most are taken in available, natural light, only one includes people and has the sense of staging and placed lighting that are the hallmarks of Hover, Twilight and Beneath the Roses.

This shift in approach, which may or may not be followed up, inevitably changes the perspective on his work. Apart from the obvious differences, the lack of colour, cinematic lighting, actors and the sense of creative direction, in Sanctuary there is no inserted narrative and none of the designed psychological undercurrents that exist in his earlier work. However, there are subtle similarities; Sanctuary documents a fiction, it is a series of stills from remembered or imaginary movies, the sets themselves contain an implied narrative, people are replaced by ghosts, an eeiry emptiness haunts the backlots so perhaps it still speaks to the theme of anxieties, desires and fears that undercut his earlier work.

In Twilight, Beneath the Roses and Sanctuary I find something beyond visual appeal. Freud said that “the uncanny is something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light” (2) and it is this sense of the uncanny, the possible visitations from another world, the unexplained strange happenings that may be worldly or other worldly, or the appearance of totemic structures that evoke Close Encounters of the the Third Kind that stimulate my emotional response. His ideas only work when placed in cinema-like sets and lighting; by drawing on the motifs and styles of modern cinema the sets connote narrative fiction, we are told it is a fantasy and are being invited to write the before and after, to devise the whole movie based on the evidence of the film still. The signifiers are in the gestures of the actors, the design of the set and, most importantly, in the lighting. The film still nearly always uses deep depth of field to allow every detail to be seen as equally important, a significant difference from a single movie frame which has limited definition and is usually focussed on a single thing. Crewdson adopts this same all-in-focus approach but directs our  eye with precise lighting, often a background interior that would otherwise be incidental is lit to emphasise its importance to the story; the main characters even when placed in a disproportionally vast landscapes are significantly highlighted. As the director Crewdson tells us where to look, how to weight the importance of the various details but overall he presents a pregnant moment that leaves endless opportunity for the viewer to finish the story.

The psychological elements that he often refers to in interviews are undoubtably there; his characters are often forlorn, isolated, bewildered, anxious, worried or, and I feel this is a recurring motif, guilty or regretful. However, probably because of the cinema-like approach, these psychological states are not subtly disguised, they are strongly denoted so there is an argument that, in this regard, his work leaves to too little to the viewer’s imagination.

I suspect his intent, in terms of a significant and meaningful commentary is, as suggested by Boothroyd (3), vague, but to continue the cinematic references to a logical conclusion being meaningful may not be his real intent; this might be photography as entertainment and, in an environment where we usually weight meaning above visual appeal, that might not be such a bad thing.

Sources

Books

(1) Cotton, Charlotte. (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New edition 2009. London: Thames and Hudson.

(2) Crewdson, Gregory (2002) Twilight. New York: Abrams

(4) Higgins, Jackie. (2013) Why it Does Not have to be in Focus: Modern Photography Explained. London: Thames and Hudson

(5) Crewdson, Gregory (2008) Beneath The Roses. New York: Abrams

(7) Bright, Susan (2011) Art Photography Now (revised and expanded edition 2011). London: Thames and Hudson.

(8) Campany, David ( 2008) Photography and Cinema. London: Reaktion Books

(10) Crewdson, Gregory (201o) Sanctuary. New York: Abrams

Internet

(3) Boothroyd, Sharon (2013) Is it a case of style over substance in cinematic photography? (accessed at WEAreOCA 26.8.15) – http://weareoca.com/photography/gregory-crewdson-phillip-lorca-dicorcia-style-or-substance-in-cinematic-photography/

(2) Crewdson, Gregory. Favourite Influential Films (accessed at Focus Features 26.8.15) – http://www.focusfeatures.com/article/gregory_crewdson

(6) Jacobs, Steven (2010) The History and Aesthetics of the Classical Film Still (in “History of Photography”) (accessed at Academia 24.8.15) https://www.academia.edu/7739156/The_History_and_Aesthetics_of_the_Classical_Film_Still_in_History_of_Photography_

(9) Hopper, Edward (accessed at Edward Hopper net 27.8.15) – http://www.edward-hopper.net

Films

Crewdson, Gregory (2012) GregoryCrewdson’s Photography Capturing a Movie Frame: Art in Progress: Reserve Channel (accessed at Youtube 23.8.15) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7CvoTtus34&feature=youtu.be

Crewdson, Gregory (2011) Gregory Crewdson speaks with ARTIST PROFILE (accessed at Youtube 24.8.15) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQy4uiS6iKw

Crewdson, Gregory (2013) Crewdson: In a Lonely Place (accessed at Youtube 24.8.15) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNvLIZr3iYY

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One Response to Gregory Crewdson – The Search for a Perfect Moment

  1. Pingback: Lecture: ‘The Directional Approach’ + ‘The Aesthetic Approach’ | Negotiated photography projects

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