Gregory Crewdson captures the dark side of rural America

Updated 7th July 2017
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Gregory Crewdson captures the dark side of rural America
Written by Nick GlassLondon
A profound and eerie silence pervades the work of American photographer Gregory Crewdson. Nobody talks, nobody ever seems to laugh or smile. There's beauty but also sadness. Alone or in pairs, everyone is lost in their own thoughts or asleep.
Crewdson carefully constructs his tableaux and then bathes them in soft, suffusing twilight, real and artificial. Then he takes the photograph. Something has happened or is about to happen; we don't know quite what.
Crewdson believes that it's not enough to make a beautiful image. Something else has to be going on, "an undercurrent of something psychological or dangerous or desirous or fearful."
I met Crewdson in an upstairs office at London's Photographers' Gallery. For the first time, the entire gallery has been given over to the work of a single artist.
The focal point of the exhibition is his latest cycle of photographs, "Cathedral of the Pines," shot in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. His family once had a log cabin there when he was a child. These days, it's where he cross-country skis and long distance swims. For these photographs, he drove around for days looking for locations just like a movie scout.
"Location, location, location is doubly important in photography," he said.

'Open-ended and ambiguous'

Crewdson has always used small town America in his photographs, but here he's shifted into more remote, more isolated countryside. He's always been attracted by the ordinary, the anonymous and the timeless, preferring that we can't quite place or date his images.
Crewdson has famously used cinematic lighting since his "Twilight" series (1998-2002). He employs a regular lighting cameraman and dozens of film technicians, as well as props and movie-making tools like rain and fog machines -- anything to enhance a desired atmosphere. He doesn't do storyboards, but writes a one-page description of each photograph. Titles are kept simple: "Seated Woman on Bed," "Woman in Parked Car," "Pregnant Woman on Porch."
In "Father and Son," a middle-aged man is laid out on his back on a bed, naked except for a blanket over his lower half. Arms at his side, he looks fixedly up at the ceiling. Is he alive or a corpse? It's hard to tell. Reflected in a mirror on a chest of drawers, a young boy in a T-shirt is sitting, half in shadow. He seems to be keeping a bedside vigil, but is he looking after his father or mourning him? It's a classically enigmatic Crewdson image, another condensed story "both open-ended and ambiguous."
The son of a New York psychoanalyst, Crewdson is an affable, thoughtful and open interview. He's told some of the stories before, but the detail is still startling. He was raised in Brooklyn, New York and struggled at school. Dyslexic and left-handed, he held a pen "like a lobster."
His father conducted therapy sessions in the basement of their house and lying on the floorboards, the young Gregory tried to listen in. He'd only ever heard whispers and mumbles, but the experience clearly marked him.
"A sense of secrets and something forbidding is what my work is about," he said.
As a boy, Crewdson wanted to become a psychiatrist like his father. But then his father took him to see a Diane Arbus retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972. Forty-five years later, Crewdson's memory is clear; this was a defining moment in his life, giving him "an appreciation of the potential power of the photo. I understood it."

Pursuing perfection

In his last big cycle of photographs, "Beneath the Roses" (2003-08), Crewdson shot mostly on studio sound stages, using star actors like Julianne Moore, Tilda Swinton and William H. Macy. For "Cathedral of the Pines," he's used local people, friends and acquaintances. Crewdson must be very persuasive. There's a lot of skin unerotically on display, most of it female.
Crewdson's influences remain obvious. In photography, it's Diane Arbus and Walker Evans (his 10-year-old son, Walker was named after Evans). In cinema, it's Hitchcock and David Lynch. (He has cited "Vertigo," "Blue Velvet" and "The Night of the Hunter," directed by Charles Laughton as influences.) In painting, the dominant influence is Edward Hopper.
When I gave him my gut response to seeing his photographs in the flesh -- "The word perfect, perfect, perfect rattling around my head," I said -- he responded with a laugh.
"Perfect is a favorite and least favorite word," he said. "My pictures are in the intersection of me wanting to create a perfect work and the impossibility of doing so."
In Ben Shapiro's 2012 bio-pic "Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters," Crewdson said he believed "every artist has one central story to tell. The struggle is to tell and retell that story over and over again in a visual form and try to challenge that story." This is unquestionably true of his own work although he thinks it has become "more introverted, more painterly."
Crewdson is now finally preparing to direct a movie of his own. He's written a screenplay, "Reflective Light," with his girlfriend.
He says that he has always enjoyed the limitations of photographs -- "everything internalized, narration in an interior way."
"This could be a problem with a movie," he said and laughed out loud.
"Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines" is on at the Photographer's Gallery in London until Oct. 8, 2017.