When I first became seriously interested in photography, the work of Gregory Crewdson stood out as something special. I found the complex production values and references to cinematic visual conventions impressive. His work was also one of the first examples of photography I became interested in, that was explicitly intended to be viewed in an art context – this clearly differentiated it from the more conventional/commercial photography I had looked at up until that point. As my knowledge and interest of contemporary photographic practice increased however, my admiration for Crewdson and his work declined.
In part one of BoW, we are asked to consider the work of Crewdson, and I took this as an opportunity to revisit his work and consider if the trajectory of my opinion of this remains or if I should revaluate. The series Twilight is the first series I came across by Crewdson and in my opinion is his most successful work. There is a dramatic rupture between the seemingly banal, everyday scenes and style of the work. The images are clearly influenced by cinema, and indeed could be described as cinematic, however, they do this in a general way that is reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills rather than by overtly referencing a specific film. They contain visual references that suggest the work of Hitchcock, Spielberg and Lynch. Indeed, it is David Lynch, with his recurring preoccupation with darkness and evil that lurks just below the surface of everyday life that is particularly relevant. Series’ that followed Twilight are similarly styled and continue with the same themes and concerns, but with less impact in my view – as the production and set design become more and more elaborate, the end result seems increasingly laboured and forced.
Looking back over Crewdson’s career I realised that I knew little about his early series’ Natural Wonder and Hover. I found myself wanting to see more of these bodies of work and the fact that they are different to Crewdson’s later work while retaining many of the same themes is of interest. I wonder if it is the success of Twilight that made Crewdson decide on this as his signature style and way of working?
Ultimately, further research has not changed my opinion of Crewdson’s work and practice. Indeed, I find the expense and level of detail that he goes to in making his images a distraction. However, the combination of artifice and reality and the tension this creates is something that appeals to me and requires deeper consideration. Having never seen one of Crewdson’s images in an exhibition, I wonder if my opinion would change experiencing the work in real life? I suspect that I would continue to agree with Grant Scott (2020) in his assessment that it is possible to admire the work without enjoying it.
- The subconscious/psychoanalysis
- Father was a psychoanalyst
- “anxiety, alienation, confusion and dread.” (Badger, 2001: 35)
- “creepy scenes of American suburbia” (Badger, 2001: 217)
- The uncanny (Freud)
- Influence of popular culture and Hollywood cinema
- The paranormal/supernatural
- The everyday
- Heightened theatricality
- Memory and imagination
- The banal and the fantastic
- Small-town American iconography
- The inexplicable
- Edward Hopper
- Henry Peach Robinson
- Oscar Rejlander
- Julia Margaret Cameron
- Alfred Hitchcock
- Steven Spielberg
- E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind
- David Lynch
- Todd Haynes
- Wes Anderson
- Films/cinema – particularly horror and science-fiction
- The X-Files
- American Graffiti
- William Shakespeare
- Hamlet – see Ophelia from the Twilight series
Process and practice:
- “[Crewdson] directs…creepy scenes of American suburbia – Desperate Housewives on Prozac or Crack cocaine – like a Hollywood production, employing lighting technicians, a casing director, a set designer and so on. He shoots innumerable ‘takes’ of the tableau he has devised for his actors. Then the best sections of each negative are taken and combined using Photoshop, and the result is a perfect photograph for the Photoshop age, a photofiction that has all the right cultural references and does not pretend to be anything other than a photo-fiction.” (Badger, 2001: 217-8)
- Works in the “directorial mode” – a process “instigated by artists by artists and photographers for whom video constituted an absorbing in initial experience of directing, rather than physically making, a work of art.” (Warner Marien, 2014: 458)
- “Gregory Crewdson’s tableau images relate directly to cinematic and televisual expectations of narrative and drama, often suspending the moment at strange in-between instants.” (Bate, 2015: 50)
- Gregory Crewdson’s work is typified by its extravagant style and use of narrative: “His is a practice indicative of much contemporary photography that collapses the older distinction between the artifice of the interior and the ‘real’ outside world. It is here that the photography has come closest to cinema in its scale and conceptualisation. This expensive and labour intensive way of working has become possible only recently, with an established art market for photography and support systems for elaborate working procedures. As in cinema there are things that are only achievable in photography with time and a lot of resources.” (Campany, 2013: 33)
- Crewdson’s central subject matter and approach to art is “carefully orchestrated scenes of mildly surreal disquiet amid white, middle-class semi-rural communities.” (Campany, 2020: 126)
- “The people [in Crewdson’s images] are not caught mid-gesture, as they might be in a single frame from a film. They tend to hold still and silent poses, as if troubled or traumatized into immobility. They act as if they are posing, or pose as if they are acting…In cinema, when the viewer’s gaze is more or less trained to watch for facial expressions and bodily gestures. When the image is still and mute, the gaze is free to wander, taking in small details that would otherwise pass by. The viewer can study the image forensically.” (Campany, 2020: 126)
- “Many of [Crewdson’s elaborately staged tableaux photographs] are photographed in Western Massachusetts, which provides the almost-anywhere-in-the-USA look: small towns with gutted cores and suburban assemblages that could exist anywhere. In this type of setting, Crewdson paints a general sense of malaise and disaffection.” (Colberg, 2020: 23)
- Discussing the series’ Beneath the Roses and Cathedral of the Pines: “In all these photographs, the surroundings are anything but glamorous, and every person is caught deep in thought. It is as if, we are led to believe, these people have no life other than their innermost one, however impoverished it may be.” (Colberg, 2020: 24)
- “[Crewdson] has said that his elaborately constructed melodramas are influenced by his memory of childhood. His psychoanalyst-father’s office was in the basement of their New York home, and Crewdson would press his ear to the floorboards to try and imagine the stories being told in the therapy sessions…[For the Twilight series] he worked with a cast and crew of the kind found on a film set. Here it is not only the display of rituals and the paranormal but also the construction of archetypal characters who carry out these acts that create the psychological drama.” (Cotton, 2014: 68)
- “Gregory Crewdson…presents hyper-detailed fictions of small town American lives riddled with unexplained mysteries and disturbing scenarios…these huge color images offer minute detail, incredibly sharp all-over focus and multi-source lighting that would be impossible in an ordinary photograph. Standing in front of one of Crewdson’s’ dramatic – even melodramatic – staged images, the eye is lured and hooked in a pleasurable way that is novel for photography, though perhaps familiar from the experience of being drawn into the visual opulence of a Hollywood film.” (Soutter, 2018: 114)
- “Gregory Crewdson is a photographer whose work reworks the American suburb into a stage set for the inexplicable, disconcerting and often disturbing. In creating what he calls ‘frozen moments’, he has developed a process akin to the making of a feature film. Operating on an epic scale, he uses a large crew to shoot and then develop the images during post-production.” (Scott, 2012)
- “Gregory Crewdson’s photographs expose the ostensibly idyllic world of rural, small-town America as an unsettling cinematographic dream, full of darkness and mystery…Crewdson creates complex and detailed pictorial worlds in which the iconography of the landscape and of suburban America are used as metaphors for his own neuroses, anxieties and longings. The inexplicable, which plays such a central role in these highly suggestive and ambiguous works, essentially manifests itself as an eruption of untameable, rampant nature in a civilization that has itself become both brittle and incomprehensible…Crewdson draws primarily on popular movie myths in order to give visual shape to the psychological desolation and secret longings of his protagonists. What emerges are poignant images of a society confronting the abysmal depths of its own damaged psyche, a quasi-hypnotized society that is just as alienated from itself as it is from the fragile reality through which it continues to sleepwalk.” (Berg, 2007: 7)
- “Gregory Crewdson’s photography revolves around a single theme: the penetration of the repressed, eerie and inexplicable into a supposedly protected pretty world. With an energy that can clearly be described as obsessive, he works to create a universe of images whose detailed and lovingly portrayed idyll is lastingly and irrevocably destabilized.” (Berg, 2007: 11)
- “Crewdson’s work, in content and production, engages deeply with film. His photographs in the Dream House and Twilight series look like excerpts from a movie rather than fragments of reality: unlike the “decisive moments” of street photography, they are neatly framed tableaux, contained rather than cropped.” (Katy Siegel in Berg, 2007: 87)
- “In Crewdson’s meticulously staged photographs, light figures as a natural, artificial, symbolic, and supernatural phenomenon. Whether it is uncanny, alien, or mystical; whether it takes the form of the sun or the moon, street lamps, car headlights, flashlights, a candelabra, bracket light, bathroom cabinet, standing lamp, or naked bulb; Crewdson uses light in a wide variety if ways an in doing so generates an abundance of inexplicable moods.” (Martin Hochleitner in Berg, 2007: 151)
- “in many of Crewdson’s tableaux, nothing makes sense and nothing is explained.” (Badger, 2001: 35)
- “in Crewdson’s work suburban life is on the brink of being splintered by nail-biting anxiety.” (Warner Marien, 2014: 459)
- Discussing the series Natural Wonder: “The photographs combine naturalism with artifice blending the beautiful with the grotesque. The result is a kind of visionary tableau narrated at close quarters like a bedtime story or claustrophobic nightmare. Crewdson sees the natural world and its processes as potential metaphors for psychological states. His studio images recall the Surrealists’ construction of scenes which attempted to convey complex states of consciousness” (Campany, 2013: 149)
- From the Gagosian website (here): “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.”
- “Crewdson signifies his subjectivity not only as a (neurotic) individual, but as an artist, through reference to making. Postmodern photographers emphasize the copy and the convention; he emphasizes creativity.” (Katy Siegel in Berg, 2007: 91)
- “I am drawn to photography by some irrational need to create an image of a perfect world. I strive to create that perfection through obsessive detailing, through a weird kind of realistic vision. When the mystery emerges, my irrational need to create a perfect world meets up with some kind of failure to do so. This collision between failure and compulsion to make something perfect creates an anxiety that interests me.” (Gregory Crewdson quoted by Katy Siegel in Berg, 2007: 92)
- Although Crewdson is not directly referenced, Michael Fried in ‘Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before’ (2008) makes the case that visibly artificial scenarios possess “theatricality” that interferes with the viewers ability to identify and empathise with characters in the scene. Informed by 18th century pictorial tableau painting, Fried prefers a naturalistic style he terms ‘anti-theatrical’. (Bate, 2015: 50)
- Tropes that run through Crewdson’s work (Colberg, 2020: 25):
- Whiteness – people of colour are largely absent.
- Run down locations.
- If someone is naked, more often than not it is a woman.
- “Nobody ever comes across as even remotely content, let alone happy…It is as if everybody in a Crewdson photograph is contemplating their general inadequacy while remaining in their assigned domain…With the general environment always being in disrepair or at least in urgent need of some improvement, the viewer is led to believe that this inadequacy is tied to the depicted people’s economic status: regular people…lacking all hints of the kinds of beauty valued by their society – are unhappy because they lack the means to be happy…Regular people are failures – that’s Crewdson’s neoliberal message.” (Colberg, 2020: 25)
- “We might expect Crewdson’s unprecedented photographic process to produce surprising new narratives, but the scenarios feel like stills from second-rate movies or like illustrations of cliched Freudian dilemmas.” (Soutter, 2018: 114)
- In, ‘Thoughts on Gregory Crewdson‘, Grant Scott concludes: “I have to admit that I do not enjoy the work of Gregory Crewdson, but I can admire it. I cannot connect with the 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.” (Scott, 2021)
Badger, G. (2001) The Genius of Photography: How Photography Has Changed Our Lives.London: Quadrille Publishing.
Bate, D. (2015) Art Photography. London: Tate Publishing.
Berg, S. (2007) (ed.) Gregory Crewdson: 1985-2005. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.
Campany, D. (2013) Art and Photography. London: Phaidon Press Limited.
Campany, D. (2020) On Photographs. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Colberg, J. (2020) Photography’s Neoliberal Realism. Mack
Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd Ed.) London: Thames and Hudson
Crewdson, G. (2008) Beneath the Roses. New York: Abrams.
Fried, M. (2008) Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before. Yale University Press New Haven.
Scott, G. (2012) Gregory Crewdson. The United Nations of Photography. At: https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2012/10/23/gregory-crewdson/ (accessed 27th June 2021)
Scott, G. (2021) Thoughts on Gregory Crewdson… The United Nations of Photography. At: https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2021/02/21/thoughts-on-gregory-crewdson/ (accessed 27th June 2021)
Soutter, L. (2018) Why Art Photography? (2nd ed.) Oxon: Routledge.
Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th Edition) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.