The Still Film and Gregory Crewdson

Context & Narrative Part Five
Constructed Realities and the fabricated image

Reading, Research and Reflections

David Campany writes, ‘The stark superficiality of film sets has attracted many photographers independent of the industry. In general, the results tend to be meditations on artifice’ (Campany 2008:120)

Later, Campany refers to Barthes argument that only when a film is stilled, ‘do we have the necessary distance to contemplate the filmic-ness of film. (Campany, 2008:135) and how this idea has appealed to artists and photographers. It enabled the term ‘narrative’ to become more of an adjective than a noun so that, ‘An image could simple be narrative without belonging to a narrative. ‘ (ibid). I have referred in my previous post to Jeff Wall’s comments regarding this and, of course, both he and Cindy Sherman took advantage of this concept to create staged photographs that hinted on hidden action both before and subsequent to the image – something beyond the frame. It could be said that Sherman’s photography is a meditation on artifice, although I view it more as commentary on stereotypes of the ‘feminine’ as shown through the cinema.

Campany argues that Jeff Wall’s version of ‘cinematographic’ takes advantage of Barthes’ opinion only in the terms that the techniques of creating films can be applied to still photography – the large productions, post-processing and collaboration, with the staging of ‘moments’ evoking reality yet being semi-fiction. Campany refers to the way in which viewers can be swept along by a film’s narrative, whereas this is suspended in a ‘still’ photograph.

‘Consequently, the staged narrative photograph that pretends the camera is not present, that depicts action in the realm of fiction, never quite achieves cinema’s naturalism. It is always haunted by movement and estranged by its own fixity’ (ibid p139 ).

I think it’s fair to say that Campany has a pretty low opinion of staged photography! It’s that very fixity and frozen stillness though that interests me whilst keeping me at a distance and that’s why I continue to be intrigued by Gregory Crewdson’s work.

Gregory Crewdson

Background information

Gregory Crewdson was born in 1962 in Brooklyn, NY Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters. He made a decision to study photography at the age of ten when his father, a psychoanalyst, took him to see a Diane Arbus Exhibition at MOMA, New York. Crewdson studied photography at SUNY Purchase (graduating in 1985), NY and obtained his MA from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut where he is now Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Photography (as here).  He is represented by Gagosian Gallery  worldwide and White Cube Gallery in London.

I have accessed a variety of resources online, watched recorded interviews, viewed his work, and also acquired two books. The book Gregory Crewdson 1985-2005 (Berge, 2005) was produced to accompany a touring retrospective Exhibition of his work up to 2005.   His Series Beneath the Roses (2003-2005) was the subject of a 2012 feature length documentary and, after this Crewdson said he would not return to series characterised by massive production crews, custom built sound stages and hired actors. Whilst visiting Rome he toured the Italian film studio Cinecitta and became captivated by the beauty of elaborate film sets there that had fallen into ruin. He returned to Rome with a small team and, working with mostly available lighting,  produced the work Sanctuary. The book Sanctuary (Scott, 2010) records this. The black and white images of the decaying streets and buildings have a haunting, melancholy effect – very different from the earlier work. I would imagine that working with a smaller production team and no actors enabled him to become more attuned to the atmosphere of the environment during filming.

Five or six years ago Crewdson went through a difficult period in his life at the end of his second marriage and moved to his permanent home in Massachussetts. He produced no work for the first two years but began to walk the Appalachian Trail and take long swims in a lake called Upper Goose Pond. One day he saw a sign for a trail named “Cathedral of the Pines” and he realised the idea for a new body of work with this title. There is an interview here where he explains more about the work. Having looked at the series it seems to me that, whilst being similar to the work before Sanctuary, it is more intimate and thoughtful, with softer, almost shadowed colours.

Some Reflections

In the mid 1970s the teenage Gregory Crewdson was one of the founders of the power pop band “the Speedies” and their song “Let me Take Your Photo” was later featured in a Hewlett Packard commercial. There’s a web site here that gives more information and a video of the song  . I did this screen grab that I think is him.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 15.53.51

Why bring up this early incarnation of him? Well, it’s such a contrast – the young lively, vocal and energetic musician, in front of the camera – as compared to the director behind the camera producing his large, carefully planned, staged, silent images, where people and landscape are frozen into pictures created from his psyche.

There is a plethora of information available about Crewdson’s background as the son of a psychoanalyst; how this influenced his thinking about people’s lives and then re-imagined this and his artistic influences into his own version of American gothic/film noir, using actors, large sets and abandoned buildings. I write ‘actors’ advisedly because in one interview (about the documentary film) with Alyssa Loh and Alma Vescovi of American Reader , published online here, when the word ‘actors’ is used Crewdson responds

‘I never know what to call the subjects in my pictures because I’m uncomfortable with the word actor. I think maybe subjects might be more accurate –or maybe even more accurate is objects (Laughs) I’m just kidding. But what’s important to me is that there’s a necessary alienation between me and the subject. I don’t want to know them well. I don’t want to have any intimate contact with them ….’

If this is an underlying attitude then maybe this also acts to the sense of disassociation and lack of apparent connectedness in his photographs. Yet – his ‘productions’ are very much based on collaboration with his production team who, as in films, are given full credits in his published books, with production stills included.

Amongst Crewdson’s influences are said to be the painter Edward Hopper (I can see his eerie silences in Crewdson’s work); the author Flannery O’Connor who wrote in the American Southern Gothic style; Alfred Hitchcock and films made by David Lynch. The use of dreams and associated imagery is one of the recurring themes in Lynch’s seemingly ‘uncanny’ films, together with the subversive and violent impulses that might often lie beneath the apparent normality and conformity of small town life in America. Crewdson’s images are unsettling with his subjects, often women, appearing to be transfixed wherever they are, gazing into space and seemingly frozen in the act of some inexplicable behaviour. I am reminded of the 1950s science fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) where alien plant spores develop into seed pods that reproduce emotionless duplicate copies, replacing humans whilst they are sleeping.

Crewdson’s work is deliberately cinematic, ‘Crewdson falls back on the popular myths of Hollywood cinema and uses them to create suggestive pictures of an American society that is alienated from itself and looks into the abyss of its own damaged collective psyche.’ (Berg, (2005:11)   ‘From the beginning he understood photographs in a particular way and sees photography as a process of cinematic compression” (ibid p. 13) He moved from designing model sets in a studio to his large scale outdoor sets and locations. He uses light in a variety of ways with windows frequently serving as an inlet for light beams. In outdoor scenes warm light can be seen radiating through windows that are often veiled by pale coloured drapes, ‘… highly evocative of the quiet and unspectacular life led by the inhabitants of a standard, single-family dwelling in an archetypal American suburb’ (Hochleitner, M. [2005:151]). Unlike the more overall quality of Jeff Wall’s shadowless light, Crewdson’s light is more focussed, directional, spotlighting different aspects of a scene in varying intensities. Crewdson’s images become more filmic and, I think, also enable him to create more three-dimensional images. I think this is also a result of his production techniques doing different takes of the same scene, (but with different lighting and focus points) that are then composited in post production. Although his work cannot be said to be ‘documentary’ he does introduce a documentary element by always including production stills.

One of the videos I looked at was the one suggested in the C&N Handbook (p. 116) Gregory Crewdon’s photography:Capturing a Movie Frame|Art in Progress|Reserve Channel (pub 16 July 2012).

We see him talking about his approach and also in midst of directing the scene and actors (from a local college). Crewdson talks of wanting to first and foremost make a beautiful picture but, if it’s just purely aesthetic it’s not good enough. That beauty needs to be undercut with something psychological and he refers to his interest in the dark side (c 8:45 in) and creating an ‘uncanny moment. He talks of his controlling aesthetic to make a perfect façade and then a deep undercurrent of what lies beneath the surface. Crewdson later talks of psychological mirrors (19:08) a world that feels familiar, timeless, but also emptied out with a lot of aimless people wandering around and that’s what he wants to create in a picture.

There are juxtapositions here between the apparently perfect surface/façade, a need for control and subversive, chaotic impulses clashing together with a rigid force field that resists all. To me this combines into frozen images that keep me at a distance and yet, somehow, beckon me forward. In this respect, I am also transfixed by Crewdson’s intention, as he explains in an article in Aperture, published online here .

“Usually in my pictures there’s nothing out of focus, there’s no blurring, no grain. Anything you associate with anything photographic, I don’t want in the picture [……] Because when somebody is looking at my picture, I want them just to fall into the world of the photograph”

If a picture of Crewdson’s represents a fragment of a dream it is not a dream I have ever had. I don’t seek absolute perfection. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever believed in absolute perfection, although I do like to achieve the best I can. Yet I do ‘fall into’ the photograph despite myself. In many respects I think Jeff Wall’s work has more depth because it shows the weight of his scholarship despite the fixed quality of his composite images. Crewdon’s work seems more glossy, inhumanly perfect. The image comes into my head of thin ice over a shallow pond, and yet something reaches out to me from beneath its surface. I think much of it might be to do with the combination of the image and all that is written and spoken about psychological depths by both Crewdson and his commentators. Within all the reading about, and looking at, his work , I did become more lost in thought than normal and I am sure this contributed to the photography I have been experimenting with alongside the readings.


Afterthought: Reading Crewdson’s comment above regarding aimless people wandering around etc I just wondered if some of his work concerns existential anxiety around “What is the purpose of life, why am I here, going through the motions”?



Berge, S (ed) (2005) Gregory Crewdson 1985-2005. Hanover: Hatje Cantz, bi-lingual version
Berge, S (2005) “The Dark Side of the American Dream” in Gregory Crewdson 1985-2005. Hanover: Hatje Cantz, (pp 11-21)
Campany, D (2008) Photography and Cinema, UK: Reaacyion Books Ltd.
Hochleitner, M (2005) “On the Iconography of Light in the Works of Gregory Crewdson” in in Gregory Crewdson 1985-2005. Hanover: Hatje Cantz. (pp 151-157.
Scott, A.O. (2010) Sanctuary. Italy: Harry N. Abrams Inc.