THE VISIONARY ART OF GREGORY CREWDSON
I’ve always been drawn to photography because of its inability to tell the full story…It remains unresolved. (Gregory Crewdson)
The experience of epiphany is paradoxical: both fleeting, like a bolt of lightning, and transcendent, with the power to alter the course of an entire lifetime. In a blaze of inspiration the vision comes to us—its effect may be delayed, its comprehension approached over a period of time; if it is embodied in a work of art, or, like the large, minutely detailed dreamlike photographic “stills” for which Gregory Crewdson has become renowned, it may require a considerable period of time, enormous concentration and (collaborative) effort in its execution.
Under the spell of the haunting images of Crewdson’s “Cathedral of the Pines” and “An Eclipse of Moths” the viewer is moved to think not only of the “stills” of films but of the distillation of poetry.
Beneath the enthrallment of the image—(though hardly a singular image, rather an atmosphere comprised of an unfathomably minute and magically charged galaxy of images: a construction)—is the resolution of the artist, to see beneath surfaces, ironically in the case of Gregory Crewdson since the art of photography is an art of “surfaces.” The viewer is put in mind of Henry David Thoreau, writing in the early 1850’s in a vast pine woods in eastern Massachusetts that would have exuded the identical “cathedral”-aura of Gregory Crewdson’s western Massachusetts pine woods in the 21st century:
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to route all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
There is a brave adolescent defiance here, as well as yearning, romantic expectation. As if in anticipation of a project titled Alone Street:
I love to be alone. I have never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
As Thoreau examined the mystery of being in the natural world, by focusing outward, upon nature, and finding his soul mirrored there, so Gregory Crewdson examines the mystery of being by focusing inward, upon a succession of private images characterized by a somber and muted atmosphere, sparely composed figures, a sky thinly but perpetually overcast. This is not the iconography of urban, affluent America but the America of Appalachia or those small New England mill towns that have seen their populations decrease for decades; the America of the left-behind, the anonymous; too isolated, too beaten-down and too depressed to register anger, or any sort of political awareness. (In such regions of the United States there would be a plethora of front-yard signs for Trump: Make America Great Again; fortunately, Crewdson has avoided these.)
The inhabitants of Alone Street share a kindred sensibility: a lone cross-country skier in a snowy pine woods, gazing into a strangely placed out-house, or privy (Figure 1); a lone woman of indeterminate age, neither young nor old, presumably a homemaker, standing at a kitchen sink, lost in reverie (Figure 2); a lone woman, near enough to the homemaker that she could be her sister, or the homemaker herself, waxy-skinned, vacant-eyed, in a frilly nightgown seated on an unmade bed in a cramped-looking bedroom (Figure 3); a lone adolescent girl, scantily dressed, barefoot, eyes downcast, framed in the doorway of a derelict shed in which, against a wall, two framed works of art are leaning (Figure 4); a lone woman, barefoot, in a suburban living room staring through a plate-glass “picture” window at figures in a snowy field some distance away (Figure 5); a lone driver, male, standing in a mist-shrouded street staring at a fallen lamppost as if it were blocking his vehicle, which it is not (Figure 6); a lone man, elderly, shirtless, with a look of being homeless, staring at a water puddle in a parking lot with an unnatural sort of intensity (Figure 7); a lone figure, male, small in scale, standing beside a railroad track near the ragged edge of town (Figure 8); a lone girl, adolescent, seated amid mud puddles beside a badly rusted car, in the no-man’s-land beside a railroad track that is “The Taxi Depot” (Figure 9).
Even when individuals are not alone they suggest nonetheless an air of aloneness, isolation, estrangement, obliviousness akin to the eerie dissociation of figures in the paintings of Edward Hopper who may be seated at odd angles to one another, facing in different directions, indifferent to one another. And how much lonelier those individuals trapped in a household with relatives for whom they seem to feel nothing, or do not dare to express what they feel, as in “The Basement,” (Figure 10) “Mother and Daughter,” (Figure 11) “Father and Son” (Figure 12). Solitude, Crewdson has said in an interview, is “tied into the medium” of photography. The photographer, like the artist, is never quite “at home” in the world, and so the act of putting a camera in front of his eyes is an acknowledgment of this separation and an exploitation of it.
As Walker Evans once remarked to a friend when he took up a camera on the street: “Watch me, I’m going to disappear.”
Out of the primal contrast between the “snapshot” and “photography”—the one an act, the other an art—the particular vision of Gregory Crewdson has emerged. Legendary as an artist who creates unrehearsed-appearing scenes with the painstaking precision of an obsessive filmmaker, Gregory Crewdson is the antithesis of the serendipitous “street photographer”—one who, in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Weegee, (the occasional) Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winograd, Vivian Maier, among others, takes photographs spontaneously and unposed, of usually anonymous subjects, on the proverbial “street.”
It may be a popular conception, or misconception, that photographs are essentially “snapshots”—“pictures” of scenes in real time, unique and unrepeatable; the camera is imagined to be an instrument of recording, not of creating, as the photographer is essentially a photo-journalist, not a creative artist. To the average, amateur photographer, the “snapshot” is the photograph: taken in “snap,” in the blink of an eye, its virtue being its uniqueness, a one-time-only moment preserved out of time; a “candid” (i.e., not calculated) camera. (And indeed, this is considered a “virtue”: it is authentic, truth-telling, unrehearsed.) “The camera never lies”—is the (mis)-conception underlying the populist art of the “snapshot.”
However, the history of photography is basically a history of strategic lies, or aesthetic stratagems, in which the “snapshot” is a relatively later development, dependent upon the capacity of the instrument to take pictures quickly and easily, and multiple times. Early photographs (of the 1840s and 1850s) were daguerreotypes that required time to “take”: inevitably, these had to be staged since posing for the camera, and holding the pose for some minutes, is not a natural act. (Particularly, subjects could not hold smiles for so long; our tradition of smiling “for the camera” would have been impossible in the past.) In the 19th century it was common practice for photographers to stage photographs of individuals in quasi-mythical settings; often, as in dreamily soft-focus photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron and Charles Dodgson, for instance, these individuals were children, costumed, cast as angels or cupids, or, in Dodgson’s case, seven-year-old Alice Liddell as child-temptress. Painter-contemporaries, notably the British Pre-Raphaelites (William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti), created a richly romantic storytelling art inspired by a wish to commemorate seemingly ordinary (non-noble, non-Biblical, non-classical) persons and domestic scenes of lush, surpassing visual beauty. Rather than elevating a painterly art independent of storytelling, let alone transcending it, the Pre-Raphaelites conceived of art as serving the interests of story, as story is the expression of character.
Gregory Crewdson’s large-scale photographs with their suggestion of arrested, interrupted, or frozen narratives are clearly rooted, then, in 19th century photography with its romantic vision of storytelling in visual form, as a value in itself: the 19th century photograph or Pre-Raphaelite painting is redeemed, in a sense, by its illustrative nature, as that which is illustrated often has a moral component. (See the arrested narrative of such sentimental domestic scenes as Holman Hunt’s “The Awakening of Conscience” or the numerous depictions of that favorite of female archetypes, the entranced “The Lady of Shalott” who longs to be broken from the spell cast upon her of a perpetual virginity.) In Crewdson’s work, however, the arrested, interrupted, or frozen narrative can only be inferred or imagined by the viewer, it is not inherent in the photograph itself; though Crewdson has said in interviews that he has been influenced by filmmakers (Kubrick, Lynch, Hitchcock, Spielberg) it isn’t the drama of storytelling that seems to engage his imagination but the more poetic isolation of “perfect moments”—visual epiphanies. Arrested moments in “Mother and Daughter,” (Figure 11) “Father and Son,” (Figure 12) “Funerary Back Lot” (Figure 16) might resemble stills from movies of an era earlier than ours, the 1950s or 1960s perhaps, holding in suspension, as in inheld breaths, emotions that have not yet acquired expression; in others—(“The Warehouse,” “The Pickup Truck”—Figures 13 and 14)—figures are so weirdly dissociated from one another as to suggest surreal works by Magritte, Balthus, Man Ray, Dali. The very titles of Crewdson’s work—“Cathedral of the Pines” (2013-2014), “An Eclipse of Moths” (2018-2019)—suggest a surreal poetry whose relationship to realism is incidental.
As in other, contemporary photographers who similarly stage their work—(Cindy Sherman, Tina Barney, Nan Goldin, Annie Leibovitz among others)—subjects “snapped” are raw material to be fashioned into photography as, to the writer, that which is written about is but material to be fashioned into art; the subject, in itself, isn’t the “art.” (In contrast to photo-journalism in which the subject is primary, it might be claimed that, in art, the subject is secondary, even in the case of Leibovitz who has made a hugely profitable career out of photographing celebrities, and has been sharply criticized for this.) In his painterly, subtly muted work Crewdson differs from these contemporaries in that his representative photographs don’t suggest dramatic scenes but rather interstitial moments following (inferred) drama; they are contemplative, meditative, “remembered” moments, not visualizations of actions. Certainly the photographs are not politically charged conceptual works like those of Cindy Sherman, intended to provoke the viewer to examine stereotypical roles by which women have been defined. Not politics, nor even history, but a kind of spiritual metaphysics underlies Crewdson’s work: the state of psychological limbo when one is, in Crewdson’s words, “lost between two different things.”
A “still” from a film is a riddle: the stillness of the image divorces it from the narrative that gives it meaning, yet the still is often more evocative, more enigmatic, and more emotionally engaging than the moment in the film which it represents, precisely because it is divorced from narrative and has no past or future but simply is. Plots in films, especially the plots of classic American films, tend toward the banally happy; the “still” is unresolved, existing as pure potential. Desire remains yearning, never fulfilled.
For this reason an eerie sort of paralysis seems to have fallen over Crewdson’s landscapes and interiors that suggests, in its implied silence, the fraught but undefined atmosphere of memory. In these scenes we are not observing anything like “real life” but recalled life; it is typical of our memories that we rarely visualize ourselves in the past in motion, involved in actions, but rather still, poised: “paralyzed.” So the viewer is an involuntary voyeur projecting himself onto the pubescent girls of “The Haircut” (Figure 15) or “The Funerary Back Lot” (Figure 16) but not into them: these are figures in a dream remembered, but a dream inaccessible to us as the girls appear as diminished, almost incidental figures in an artfully cluttered landscape as in an installation by Ed Kienholz.
If Crewdson’s personae are in close proximity, as in “Mother and Daughter,” it is not likely that they are intimately close; the mother, scantily clad, lies on a sofa with her head on the daughter’s lap, but the mother is facing away from the daughter, and the daughter is gazing opaquely over the mother’s head, as into a void; there is a fleshly nearness here, but nothing like sensuality; in this, one of Crewdson’s most mysterious settings, the suburban living room opens out onto a snow-covered terrace through a partly opened sliding glass door, snow on the terrace and wall-to-wall carpeting in the living room blending seamlessly together in one monochromatic texture.
So too in “Father and Son,” (FIgure 12) another unnerving scene of implied but thwarted intimacy, a macabre stillness lies over a (small, claustrophobic) bedroom in which a waxen-skinned man of youthful middle age is lying rigidly in bed, unclothed beneath bed covers, as a boy of about eleven, reflected in a mirror, is gazing impassively away from him. The figure of the boy seems about to dissolve into shadows, and might be initially overlooked by the viewer; if we look closely, we seem to see that the boy in the mirror is not quite in the position we would imagine him to be in. The atmosphere suggests a dark enchantment: a window opened just slightly that looks out upon a “real” world of green while indoors the immobile father and son are trapped in a dual paralysis. The viewer may wonder: is the father alive? Is the father dying, or dead? Is the entire scene a traumatic memory of the son, whose framed, reflected image may replicate that of the visionary artist?
Obliquely replicating the solitary, inward-focused female figures of Edward Hopper, often glimpsed through windows, the women in Crewdson’s “Woman at Sink,” (Figure 2) “Seated Woman on Bed,” (Figure 3) and “The Disturbance” (Figure 5) seem trapped by their interior surroundings, touched by an almost ethereal light from a mysterious source coming from all directions simultaneously; of these, “Seated Woman on Bed” exerts a particular powerful spell, as if the waxy-skinned woman’s recollection of this moment has become identical with the viewer’s experience of it.
That is, the photographed woman isn’t an object in the photograph but the subject: the consciousness that is imagining the scene, and her (past) self within it, as in envisioning the past, we are likely to “see” ourselves in an arrested state, unmoving as a mannequin among other mannequins. (Not altogether clear in “Seated Woman on Bed” is what appears to be a bare foot just visible amid the bedclothes behind the woman: a sleeping husband? If Norman Rockwell had painted this intimate marital scene it would have been gently comical; here, the effect of the near-invisible bare foot is unnerving, sinister as the foot of a corpse.)
Crewdson’s work generally exudes an air of fragile, fleeting beauty but those landscapes in which human figures are diminutive are most luminous, suggesting the transparency of watercolor: “Royal Cleaners,” “The Taxi Depot,” “Alone Street,” “Starkfield Lane,” the ironically titled “Redemption Center” (an intricately constructed image created out of multiple photographs taken near a General Electric transformer plant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts that poisoned the area with PCBs before it was shut down in 1987.) In similarly luminous photographs taken outdoors, in the pine woods and at the edge of town near a railroad track overgrown with weeds, the human figure is likely to be, in Crewdson’s words, “dwarfed by the landscape and the vastness of nature”—substitutes for the artist in search of the meaning of his own obsessions.
As Crewdson’s interior scenes suggest the dreamlike minimalism of Hopper, the seemingly random, undistinguished scenes of small town, post-industrial America with their rain-washed, cracked pavements, derelict vehicles, shingleboard houses in need of repair and repainting are likely to suggest the wan but haunting nostalgia of the contemporary watercolorist Matthew Daub (see Daub’s “Maiden Creek Series,” 2013.) It’s a magical sort of art that transforms the banal into the unearthly beautiful, the more powerful for seeming ahistorical, transcendent; the sort of beauty that exists in memory, where it has become a “still”—not in the present, where its effect is uncertainly tangled in the imprecision of narrative.
In a number of large-scale works of Crewdson’s a faint mist hovers above the mud-puddled earth—an aura of nostalgia tempered by regret, wonderment. (We know from Gregory Crewdson’s interviews that his mists are created by “mist machines,” as his melancholy studies of post-industrial American loneliness are evoked by film crews under his guidance; Crewdson himself rarely takes pictures with a camera any longer.) In these “stills” out of life we are confounded by a mirror held up to ourselves, intrigued by the mystery of how, why, for what purpose we are what we are and where we are in our determination to “drive life into a corner” to reduce it to its most elemental terms.
It isn’t clear in “The Disturbance” (Figure 5) what the nature of the “disturbance” is. The solitary woman in the suburban house looks out across an open, snowy field to see diminutive figures, male, involved in some undefined action. Perhaps she is yearning to know, perhaps she is frightened, or envious, or indifferent; the spell has been cast upon her, as upon Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott,” a captive of shadows. If we look carefully we would probably discover that there has been a “disturbance” of some kind in each of Gregory Crewdson’s so-carefully curated works of art, which has preceded the “perfect moment” that is recorded by the camera; the wondering viewer is led to infer it, as if peering into a mirror, but the inference isn’t evident in the work itself. For the “stilled” art of Gregory Crewdson isn’t a mystery to be solved but a mystery to be experienced.
This essay was originally published as the introduction to the book, “Gregory Crewdson: Alone Street,” which is available at this link. Use the code JCO30 to purchase a copy of the book at a discounted price.