Crewdson is one of the best photographers of the world. Gregory Crewdson’s work is in many collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, LACounty Museum. A traveling exhibition of his work is now touring museums in Europe. The body of work featured in the film is “Beneaththe Roses,” and was produced from 2002-2008. The photographs at the end of the film, of the back-lot of Cinetta’ studios in Rome, are “Sanctuary,” which premiered in 2010.
With unprecedented access, director Ben Shapiro filmed Crewdson for a decade, beginning in 2000. Throughout the film we witness his work grow and deepen, garner worldwide acclaim, and reach a climax of creative change as Crewdson’s inspiration spirals in a radical new direction. The result is an intimate view of the creation of iconic works by one of the most renowned and influential artists of our time.
Shapiro says about this Gregory Crewdson’s movie:
Brief Encounters was filmed over a ten-year span. I first encountered Crewdson and his work in 2000, when I was working on a piece about him for the PBS series EGG. I was immediately struck by the beauty and power of his images, and also by the care, vision, and complexity of the productions. The first Crewdson shoot I filmed was in Lee, Massachusetts—he was making a photograph of a man, apparently just returned home from work, who has removed his suit and is climbing a flowercovered beanstalk that has burst through the lawn. Members of Crewdson’s team spent the day sorting through dozens of boxes of fresh flowers, carefully positioning and stapling them one at a time to the beanstalk, which was in fact a recycled telephone pole. It was an introduction to the kind of detail that contributes so much to the richness of his work. Most of the filming of Brief Encounters was done between 2005 and 2009, when Crewdson was creating his epic series of photographs, “Beneath the Roses.” When I proposed making the film, he was completely supportive and encouraging, as he remained throughout the entire production. He granted me virtually unlimited access, from pre-production location scouting, right through to the taking of the pictures.
A few times I even filmed from a position on the set itself, hidden from his camera by a piece of scenery. I worked solo during nearly all of the filming, and eventually became a frequent and relatively unnoticed fixture on his sets. I filmed periodically, across many of Crewdson’s shoots, unsure how the film would ultimately end. Then Crewdson himself provided a conclusion by finishing the “Beneath the Roses” series. He also decided he was done, at least for the time being, with such large scale productions. His subsequent body of work, “Sanctuary,” appears at the end of the film: black and white images of the decaying backlot of the famous Cinecitta studios outside of Rome. He worked there with a small crew, and apart from spraying some water on the ground, or adding some smoke, he captured the abandoned movie sets as they were. His “Sanctuary” photographs premiered in 2010.
Black and White Crewdson’s photos are from the series ‘Sanctuary’, shooted at Cinecittà Studios of Rome, Italy.
The American middle-class nightmare: nothing is clean, orderly, idyllic, or romantic. In his perfectly staged, hyperrealistic tableaux, photographer Gregory Crewdson reveals the claustrophobic limbo and abyss of spiritual repression that is the typical suburb. Here, hushed-up violence, alienation, isolation, and emptiness are nothing new or unfamiliar, but rather part of the everyday neighbourhood experience.”
Gregory Crewdson, In a Lonely Place, Abrams Publishing, New York, 2011
“I have always been fascinated by the poetic condition of twilight. By its transformative quality. Its power of turning the ordinary into something magical and otherworldly. My wish is for the narrative in the pictures to work within that circumstance. It is that sense of in-between-ness that interests me.”
“In a Lonely Place presents selections from three major series by Gregory Crewdson, Fireflies (1996), Beneath the Roses (2003-2008), Sanctuary (2010) and, presented for the first time, the video Field Notes (2009). The exhibition title comes from Nicholas Ray’s 1950s film noir of the same name, one of many films that inspired Crewdson. In a Lonely Place is evocative of an underlying mood-a quiet feeling of alienation and loneliness that links the three series.
In Beneath the Roses, anonymous townscapes, forest clearings and broad, desolate streets are revealed as sites of mystery and wonder; similarly, ostensibly banal interiors become the staging grounds for strange human scenarios. Crewdson’s scenes are tangibly atmospheric: visually alluring and often deeply disquieting. Never anchored precisely in time or place, these and the other narratives of Beneath the Roses are located in the dystopic landscape of the anxious American imagination. Crewdson explores the American psyche and the dramas at play within quotidian environments.
In his most recent series, Sanctuary (2010), Crewdson has taken a new direction, shooting for the first time outside the US. During a trip to Rome, he visited the legendary Cinecittà studios, which was founded by Mussolini in the 1930s and is associated with the great Italian film director Federico Fellini. Crewdson discovered fragments of a past glory, with occasional unexpected views of the surrounding contemporary Roman suburbia. Cinecittà is a lonely place deserted by the film crews who once used the site to recreate settings of ancient Rome, medieval Italy and nineteenth-century New York.
In the intimate photographs of Fireflies, Crewdson portrays the mating ritual of fireflies at dusk, capturing the tiny insects’ transient moments of light as they illuminate the summer night. Unlike the theatrical scale of theBeneath the Roses and Sanctuary series, Fireflies is a quiet meditation on the nature of light and desire, as the images reflect not only upon the fleeting movements of the insects in their intricate mating ritual, but upon the notion of photography itself, in capturing a single ephemeral moment.
Gregory Crewdson received a BA from the State University of New York, Purchase, New York in 1985 and an MFA in Photography from Yale School of Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut in 1988. He has exhibited widely in the United States and Europe. He is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Photography at the Yale School of Art, Yale University. Gregory Crewdson is represented by Gagosian Gallery and White Cube Gallery.”
We collected and mixed 5 different interviews at Gregory Crewdson plus 2 video interviews. So you can know better as Crewdson works.
Q & A with Gregory Crewdson Currently showing at SITE Santa Fe is a rather incredible display of images by New York artist Gregory Crewdson. The exhibition contains photos from two series, Hover (1996-1997) and Twilight (1998-2000). Crewdson could have easily been drop-shipped by Hollywood with his psychologically tense cinematic stills. However, unlike film, these photographs capture isolated moments with no past and no future, and an imaginary possibility hangs over them like a pregnant pause, playing to photography’s narrative strength.
Despite Crewdson’s success, he remains low-key and accessible, sharing his vision as a teacher at Yale and speaking openly about his work. He was interviewed at SITE Santa Fe in February 2001.
Antonio López: I’m envious because you have the satisfaction of working with your hands. With your earlier work, I noticed some of the tableaus you created are almost like train sets. Is there something from your childhood that appeals to you in creating these dioramas?
Gregory Crewdson: I think that, in a sense, there’s something about photography in general that we could associate with memory, or the past, or childhood. I never literally made miniature trains, tableaus, or anything. But there is something very childlike in the process.
AL: What inspired you to start building these sets?
Gregory Crewdson: I was just very interested in museum dioramas, actually, and I’ve always been interested in wanting to construct the world in photographs. So I think that initiated my work in general– just wanting to create a complete world, whether or not it’s in my studio or out on location. I think one of the things we can get from photography is this establishment of a world.
AL: You mentioned something about your dreams influencing a particular series. From what I understand, it takes up to a month to do one photograph.
Gregory Crewdson: I think there’s an internal vision of some sort, like I think all artists do, and the struggle to try to present it or represent it in the world, whatever it takes to do that, I’ll do it.
AL: Do you know why it is that you are in photography and not film?
Gregory Crewdson: Yeah, because although the work is influenced by film, I’m very struck by the still image, and I’m interested in the limitations of a photograph in terms of its narrative capacity to have an image that’s frozen in time, and there’s no before or after. So I want to use that limitation as a kind of strength, you know.
AL: You’ve talked about how your childhood influenced the psychological states that you portray.
Gregory Crewdson: I think I’ve mentioned that my father was a psychoanalyst, and he was always a very close inspiration for me, and I think it’s what accounts for the psychological nature of the work. That’s one thing. The other thing is that the setting of my work is the suburbs, or an imagined suburban landscape, and I’m originally from New York, I still live in New York, so I think that discrepancy presents the work with a sense of alien perspective, let’s say, or a sense of wonder.
AL: Before I looked at your book, I couldn’t help but have the recurring image of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as I walked through the SITE Santa Fe exhibit. Then I saw the stills from the film in your book. Was that a direct influence, or did you tap into some kind of pop-cultural gestalt?
Gregory Crewdson: Everything makes much more sense when you look at it retrospectively; things seem much more linear. When I was working through all that originally, it was much more chaotic and disruptive and frenzied, and it wasn’t until I re-saw Close Encounters that I realized, Oh, my god. [The work] was strangely connected to that figure, you know, this process . . .
AL: Especially the demons and obsession of the Richard Dreyfuss character. He doesn’t know where they’re coming from initially.
Gregory Crewdson: Right. He’s struggling to make sense of that. That’s what the artist does, you know. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the artistic process.
AL: There are several articles connecting different contemporary artists who seem to be working in a similar vein, about suburbia, its dark side, perhaps. Do you feel comfortable being included in this “movement”?
Gregory Crewdson: I think that there are certain general tendencies. Artists are drawn to certain things, and certainly I feel aligned with certain things and not others. The work that inspires me sort of comes from that tradition, like Edward Hopper, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, or Stephen Spielberg. We all approach suburbia with a sense of possibilities.
AL: In past interviews you mentioned that your photos were American realist images in photographic form, and I immediately jumped to Hopper; a light bulb went off. I really see a strong correlation.
Gregory Crewdson: Yeah, yeah. I could be slightly ironic and say he’s the greatest American photographer [laughter]. What I mean by that is he’s so hugely influential in terms of our understanding of ourselves. But he seems so current in terms of contemporary photography [with] his interest in the American vernacular.
AL: As a WPA artist he was a populist, so would you see your work in that tradition as well?
Gregory Crewdson: I wouldn’t call myself a populist, but I would say that I feel one of the reasons I’m drawn to photography and the subject I explore is that there’s a kind of accessibility to it. I’m interested in drawing the viewer in with that accessibility. However, once they’re in, then I like to sort of fuck with that one way or another, complicate that relationship.
AL: I guess that’s reflected in the process of working with these communities where you photograph. It seems like after the product is complete and the people are seeing themselves in these images, there must be some complexity involved there.
GC: The Twilight pictures particularly… there’s the photograph itself, which is of this final, beautiful thing, hopefully; and then there’s the process of making the picture, which is very different from the final picture. I think the process, in my mind, is as important as the picture itself.
AL: In terms of working with the people in the community, what is the difference between the time that you’re involving them with the creation of the photograph and then with the final product?
Gregory Crewdson: I work very closely with the community and with my production crew, but then it becomes something much more private. I contemplate the pictures very privately, show almost no one — and then there’s the final picture image, and once I make that, then I disseminate the pictures in the town. And they usually like the pictures.
AL: They work with you, they know who you are, and I assume that they like you, as opposed to some kind of invading army coming in from New York: a bunch of weird artists messing up their community.
GC: Well, there’s partially that, too. It’s partially a collaboration, but it’s also partially like intervention. I have to find a balancing point; I have to know when I’m overstepping.
AL: So in the process of creating intervention, do you feel that you touch people?
GC: Well, I don’t know. I think maybe the process has in a sense. What I think is that we make situations, you know. And that situation could be seen as something positive and good, or it could be seen as a disruption or distraction. It all depends. Ultimately, I have an idea of a picture in my mind that I want to make, and maybe it’s a measure of my obsession or narcissism, that I, or whatever it is, activate that. You have to be fairly aggressive about wanting to make a picture in certain situations, unlike the earlier pictures that were elaborately staged. I mean, they’re not staged pictures in my studio, where I could just work hours and hours on end, in complete isolation. They’re much more about working in an outside context.
AL: I had an epiphany once when I was in Mexico and I realized that I felt inhibited photographing people. I had met a Spanish photojournalist who could just jump into any situation and take a picture. I realized that photos depend so much on the personality of the photographer interacting with the subject of the photograph.
GC: Photography is a very complicated thing. When you’re making a picture, there’s levels of intrusion and levels of voyeurism and levels of exploitation, you know. And I think a photographer has to measure what lines he’s willing to cross and what becomes worth it to make a picture. I think Walker Evans talks about having certain anxieties about making a photograph or not, and then feeling nervous about it. His answer for that is simple. It’s like, if I don’t make this picture it won’t be made, right? So I think what he’s saying is the photograph is the important thing.
AL: It transcends the entire process?
GC: Well, either you have the picture or not, you make the decision. It might be uncomfortable, it might be difficult, but I think that photographers are ultimately responsible for their own vision.
AL: Do you see voyeurism as an American phenomenon? Is it part of the pop culture, or is it something that’s universal?
GC: I think it’s built into the act of photography. Just the process of looking through a framed world separates the artist from the subject; it creates a kind of implicit voyeurism. And I think on a fundamental level, part of why we’re drawn to photography is it’s kind of a voyeuristic act, and there’s a fascination in that.
AL: In the Duchamp installation, Étant Donnés, you look through the peephole at a naked body. I understand you had an opportunity to actually look through it, but you decided not to; you only wanted to see the piece as a photograph, the image of the image.
GC: That’s changed since then. I’ve actually seen Étant Donnés.
AL: And so what was it like?
GC: I saw it like a photographer, you know. I still see it as a photographic piece. And you know, a sculptor will see it as a sculptural piece. I think it’s such a powerful and mysterious icon; you bring your own interpretation to it. I think part of the strength of that piece is that you can’t wholly understand it.
AL: I guess different kinds of artists can say the same about your work because there is the sculptural element and then there’s this cinematic element, the photographic element, and even the narrative element.
GC: Well, one of the fantastic things about photography, I think, is that it kind of exists between everything, you know. It’s a currency by which we sort of understand ourselves. Photographic representation exists among almost every avenue of representation.
Photographer Gregory Crewdson has seldom been considered traditional, but a new exhibit shows he has something in common with the past as he moves his art forward. Crewdson is showing some of his work at the Williams College Museum of Art, alongside the paintings of Edward Hopper. One image in particular bears an uncanny resemblance to one of Hopper’s and features a woman staring out of a bedroom window, filled with lament. The major difference between the two works is that Crewdson’s woman is in underwear and the full spectacle of the room is explored, while Hopper’s woman is nude and its perspective more intimate. Crewdson was as shocked as anyone when the similarity was pointed out to him. Although a huge fan of Hopper’s work, he had not set out to do any sort of homage or pastiche, he was just focused on making the best image he could. “Artists always have a relationship to the tradition in which they work,” said Crewdson, “so I think that maybe on an unconscious level, previous images saturate you in some way or another.” While the photos do share similarities in subject matter and mood, Crewdson’s work is filled with similar imagery ” it’s just not that hard to find a half-naked woman with a haunted visage inhabiting some ghostly moment in the twilight of consciousness. Crewdson acknowledges as much, but tends to not analyze too closely. “I know I’m interested in a particular type, a certain kind of hauntedness or loneliness, a beauty and a certain kind of nakedness,” he said. “Anything more than that, I’d be hesitant to try and articulate, I like to keep it a mystery in a certain sense. To myself, I mean.” Some of Crewdson’s most major influences are filmmakers, and a couple of them, most notably Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch, have similarly well-documented preoccupations with the use of women in psychological imagery. Lynch tells a story from his childhood that involves a female neighbor walking down the neighborhood street as children looked on, an incident that inspired an infamous nude scene with Isabella Rossellini in “Blue Velvet.” Crewdson is also able to point to a similar smoking gun ” he thinks. “I think we were all at the next-door neighbor’s Christmas party,” he said, “and it was all very proper and everything, and the mother walked down the stairs of her house completely naked. I don’t even know if I was there, but I’ve always had that in my mind.” Crewdson’s confusion over the validity of the memory is the epitome of his work. It is not so much important that the incident happened as he remembers it; it is more important as something that exists as a vivid perception in his mind ” one that informs he work constantly. Similarly, his photographs can either function as documents of actual events in the lives of his subjects or more inward events in their mind’s eye. In this way, nakedness ” both the state and the word ” are of total importance to the images. “I guess you could make a distinction between naked and the nude,” Crewdson said. “Naked just feels more psychological.” It seems appropriate that Crewdson comes up with a lot of his ideas while swimming, when his body is floating and separated from the gravity that binds us to our world, afloat in his own ” much like the people he portrays. In a practical way, swimming provides Crewdson with a total sensory immersion into himself, removing him from the busy work of daily life in order to let his mind wander. “As I’m swimming, I’m counting the laps, and at some point, images do emerge,” he said. “I start to think about that and then I let it sit. If it stays up there, I try to make a picture of it.” Crewdson has two distinct ways of taking a photo, either on a sound stage or on location. The Berkshires have been host to a number of his location shots, as well as some studio work at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The locations he chooses might be considered boring by some people, as they often involve newer, more suburban housing, a lot of ranch style abodes, sometimes new neighborhood developments. On occasion, he will venture into what could be construed as the wrong side of town. “What I’m most interested in now is a kind of non descript, desolate town where everything feels like it’s from another period, but you can’t quite put your finger on it,” Crewdson said. Although he was born and raised in Park Slope, a section of Brooklyn, Crewdson’s family owns a cabin in Becket, and the time spent there through his life has fired his focus on the Berkshires in his photography. He admits his life in the city may well have created a general perception of small towns as exotic ” fueled by specific experience in the Berkshires. “The way I see it is that the setting is a stage for my picture-making activities, and it’s an important one,” he said. “But I also want the picture to feel like it could be anywhere. It’s the place ” it’s my connection with the place ” and it’s my imagined sense of the place all coming together.” A final photograph by Crewdson is the result of a number of influences and obsessions and experiences coming together to tell a story ” and he does consider himself very much a storyteller. Despite this, he says he has absolutely no interest in filmmaking whatsoever, preferring to give his attention to the single image and nothing on either side of it. The story is implied ” beyond that is a result of the dance between Crewdson and the viewers ” what he brings and they bring. “I really don’t have any interest in the before or after,” he said. “I am just completely invested in the single moment. I can have some ideas, but I much prefer to keep that a mystery and just make sure that I render that single moment as perfectly as I can.”
Gregory Crewdson: Well, it’s a very complex process and there are various aspects to it. But I think, despite the enormous production that goes into the photographs, it’s also an extremely organic and visceral process as well. Typically, I come up with an image in my mind that seems one way or another compelling and then, if I feel strongly about it, I will work with my production assistant to try to find the perfect location for this image. Then, I try to piece [it] together, almost like a puzzle, to try to create the image so it comes together. And typically, that means working with a quite extensive production crew. I work with a cinematographer, I work with electricians, assistants, I work with a production designer. It’s very much like making a small-scale film. But ultimately, it is a photograph. Even though we use cinematic production, ultimately what I am interested in is something still and quiet and evocative. So the “Twilight” series all occurs at this moment of transition between day and night, and because of that we tend to use an enormous amount of lighting. I really like that moment where the ambient light comes together and works together with the artificial light and creates this very powerful and evocative palette. I work with this team to try to produce or recreate the image that’s in my mind.
EGG: Why aren’t you behind the camera? How do you define your role in the process?
Gregory Crewdson: I think that there are a few different pragmatic reasons why I am not behind the camera. One is that it is an 8 by 10 camera. It’s a very large-format camera; it’s cumbersome when I am in the situation to be oppressed by it or burdened by it. So I always frame the picture earlier, establish the frame of the photograph, and then I think it is more important for me to be somewhere between the cameraman and the subject. And I don’t want to be worrying about “Do I have the right focus, do I have the right exposure” — and also, Dan, the cameraman, is a much better technician then I am. I quite honestly am not particularly good at any one thing, and I am not attempting to be modest. I know I could never light a photograph as well as my cinematographer; I could never construct these totemic structures that I make. I think what I am good at is creating a situation. I think that is what I am good at. I know how to create a situation through various relationships with my crew and my surroundings. So if I need a fire truck, for instance, or if I need an elevated crane, or if I need — like a picture that I did this past week — 80 young schoolchildren in three school buses, I think I am good at sort of creating that sort of situation.
EGG: What do you like most about these grand-scale productions?
Gregory Crewdson: One of the aspects that I like about the productions is that there is, I think, an extraordinary coming together of different worlds. Not only do we have the people in the neighborhood, but on the production crew we have people that have worked their entire life in films, working alongside a tree surgeon or a landscaper. And I think that kind of confluence is really wonderful. It creates an interesting set that I like more then a completely professional crew because it gives a sort of liveliness to the pictures, and you know there is an interesting set of dynamics that are produced through that.
EGG: What draws you to photography?
Gregory Crewdson: I think I always have been drawn to photography because I want to construct a perfect world. I want to try to create this moment that is separate from the chaos of my life, and to do that I think I create enormous disorder. And I like that craziness because I think that it creates almost a sort of neurotic energy on the set, and through that there is a moment of transportation. And in all my pictures what I am ultimately interested in is that moment of transcendence or transportation, where one is transported into another place, into a perfect, still world. Despite my compulsion to create this still world, it always meets up against the impossibility of doing so. So, I like the collision between this need for order and perfection and how it collides with a sense of the impossible. I like where possibility and impossibly meet.
EGG: What is your relationship with the people of Lee, Massachusetts like?
Gregory Crewdson: I think part of the complication in the pictures I make is the kind of intrusion I have onto the neighborhood. I think that there are two sides to that. At certain times, there’s this sense that there’s this magical event occurring. In other times, I know I am just a nuisance and that I am intruding in people’s lives and I’m making a mess when blocking the street or closing them. I think if I was overly concerned with all these issues (I’m very sensitive to them) it would create a paralysis. I just have to know that ultimately, perhaps at moments I’ll just push too hard and then come back. But I think that if I didn’t have this sense of connection to the neighborhood that these pictures couldn’t be made. So, it’s not only a portrait of a particular person. It’s the portrait of a community and the neighborhood and my own kind of mythology of it.
The first photographic image I ever saw by Gregory Crewdson was of a seagull perched in an unlikely forest at the edge of a pool whose surface was blubbery, laden with what appeared to be lice, beer cans, an Ivory soap bottle—the jetsam of contemporary America. Green leafless plant stems sprouted optimistically forming the miasma. Several sparrows stood on burnt tin cans, and a moth hovered nearby. Was the poor gull going to drink from this white verminous cesspool? Had it already? The beak was agape, after all, and the bird appeared as if it were about to retch. Why was its eye so deathly, jaundiced? Was this an allegory of the end of nature? A black comedy? A silent sermon? And what was that I could see through the amber thicket? The outlines of a perfect suburban house, serene and dreamlike in the distance? Were the people who lived at a blissful remove from this scene of innocence and squalor responsible somehow for dumping their cruddy debris here, for infecting this otherwise bucolic glade?
Later, long after I understood my questions were unanswerable, the image remained in mind, continued to bother me, provoke my imagination. And as it did, my incipient respect for Gregory Crewdson’s artistry—the photograph caused me instantly to regard its maker with awe—grew into something more complex. I began to recognize Crewdson as one of those rare artists touched by vision; someone whose work truly disrupted my sense of the known. Who was this guy, and why was he messing with my mind? No matter: after that day at Luhring Augustine gallery when I looked through many of his colorful and astounding prints, Crewdson had gained a new admirer.
We met nearly a year later, and have now become friends. His bio simply does nothing to prepare the uninitiated for these fantastical, apocalyptic, utopian, droll, gothic, paradoxical, magnificent images he creates. Born in 1962, middle-class background. Grew up in Park Slope, son of a psychoanalyst (father) and “movement analyst” (mother). Attended Brooklyn Friends, John Dewey High School, SUNY Purchase, grad work at Yale. Brother is a nature writer. Sister studying to be a psychiatrist. Well, maybe there is something here: analysis, nature, movement, speculation.
Wherever Gregory Crewdson is, as they say, coming from, matters less than where he is, through his unparalleled dioramic and fabular images, going. We spent an afternoon that continued into a summer’s evening discussing his possible points of origin and destinations. Here is part of the verbal journey.
Bradford Morrow I’d like to address the narrativity of your photographs. If one thinks of them as image-stories, they are intriguingly transgressive insofar as you only deliver the final scene, and therefore compel the viewer to create the story that precedes it. What is your relationship to the notion of narrative or story?
Gregory Crewdson I’m interested in the question of narrative, how photography is distinct from, but connected to, other narrative forms like writing and film. This idea of creating a moment that’s frozen and mute, that perhaps ultimately asks more questions than it answers, proposes an open-ended and ambiguous narrative that allows the viewer to, in a sense, complete it. Ultimately, I’m interested in this ambiguous moment that draws the viewer in through photographic beauty, through repulsion, through some kind of tension.
BM You mention drawing a viewer in through repulsion. I do find that your work is, at all times, steeped in paradox. It is constantly inviting and combative, violent yet serene, beautiful and ugly. I’m curious about your involvement with that moment which becomes the image, because I know you construct the scenarios that you photograph. In the process of constructing them, surely you’re involved in the storyline itself. For instance, the photograph of the fox in the forest with the grape arbor. These delectable, nutritious grapes are hanging down even as the poor fox lies on its back, dead as a doornail. The background is a visual hint or ghost of urban serenity. When you’re constructing images, when do you have your initial sense of what the image will be, how does that process work? Is there a prefigurative story that develops in your mind? Do you know how that fox arrived in this forest?
GC I’m a romantic. I think. I’m a very intuitive artist in terms of the final image. I spend upwards of a month creating every image. We were speaking of paradox; I’m drawn to photography by some irrational desire to create an image of a perfect world. I strive to create that perfection through obsessive detailing, through a weird kind of realist vision. When the mystery of the photograph 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.
BM Have you ever intuited where that desire to create something perfect derives from, in you, personally?
GC I think it has something to do with repression. (laughter)
GC My father is a psychoanalyst and in the early years had his office in the basement of our brownstone house in Brooklyn. I would put my ear to the floorboards above his office and listen to his sessions, trying to imagine what was going on, creating a mental image of what was happening downstairs.
BM A visual image.
GC Yes. Not quite knowing what he was doing but knowing that it was a secret.
BM That’s fascinating, because a viewer of your photographs senses that he or she is invited to he a voyeur. Your viewer stumbles upon an impossibly symbolic or Aesopian or pre-Adamite scenario that’s…
BM Aesopian as in out of an Aesop’s fable. Because your work is fabulous, it’s fabular. One particular image that you created, I find almost fundamental. After I saw it, it became part of my own visual landscape: the one of the birds who seem to have created a circle of spotted eggs, like a little Stonehenge of the Birds. But then in the background lurks this suburban set-up: houses, a couple of trees, and a ladder going up into one tree for no particular reason, then some mountains behind. Tell me, do you identify with the birds or something as the maker both of the scene and as the maker of the photograph? Are you envisioning a fable here? Is there a “moral to the story?”
GC That’s interesting. I don’t know if there’s a moral to the story, but I intentionally created a sense of ritual that is left as a question. This ring of eggs occurs as some kind of formation, perhaps a paranormal event and, certainly, there is the possible emergent meaning. To go back to an earlier question that you asked about paradox, in all of my photographs I’m very much interested in creating tension; between domesticity and nature, the normal and the paranormal, or artifice and reality, or what’s familiar and what’s mysterious. We could call that an interest in the uncanny: the terrifying and the familiar. I intentionally ground all these mysterious or unknowable events within a recognizable and iconic situation, which is the domestic American landscape. Ultimately, I would describe myself as an American realist landscape photographer. (laughter) Despite the artifice in the pictures, I’m not interested in revealing the artifice as much as creating a believable or credible world.
BM I find these worlds disconcertingly credible. I’ve been there, I’ve seen those birds. I didn’t see them make that circle but what’s so powerful about the image is that I believe I’m stumbling upon something I’ve stumbled on before—and not in a dream. This is not surreal work. It has super-real qualities. You’re not just the photographer, actually, you are a sculptor and a storyteller. Your photographs really go so far beyond seizing an image out of the world. In fact, you’re not doing that at all, you’re beginning with a narrative, you’re listening in on a conversation downstairs. In a way, the photographic element is almost tertiary. How do you relate to the ladder or the bird or the house or the water tower or the mountains? What do you invest personally as you’re constructing the scene that becomes the photograph?
GC Everything. I’ve been asked many times, what’s your relationship to nature or the suburbs? I’m not that interested in either as subjects as much as I’m interested in using the iconography of nature and the American landscape as surrogates or metaphors for psychological anxiety, fear, or desire. Everything in the photographs: the birds, the iconography, the images, and probably most directly, the actual casts of my body parts, deal with my own psychology. They are used as tropes to investigate my interior life. I want to take familiar tropes like the suburban home or aspects of the landscape and project onto them some kind of personal meaning.
BM I love the reductive or democratic aspect of the work, which makes equal the suburban home with the eviscerated animal, the blistered calf with fluttering, impossibly iridescent butterflies. There’s an equalizing that you do which is combative, therefore very American. The work is ambitious and ambiguous. I think the viewer must try to set aside any notion of beauty or ugliness. In fact, I’d love to know if you have a definition for the word ugly or if you have a sense of the word beauty. I’m really interested in this democratization, because you define yourself as an American artist. Although American is so undefinable in and of itself. How do you view your responsibility to the viewer and how do you view the viewer’s responsibility toward the image? Or is responsibility even the right word?
GC I’m not sure what my responsibility is to the viewer. Originally, one of the reasons I was drawn to photography, as opposed to painting or sculpture or installation, is that of all the arts, it is the most democratic insofar as it’s instantly readable and accessible to our culture. Photography is how we move information back and forth. But I also want the work to have a visceral impact that draws the viewer in through photographic beauty, lushness, vibrant color. Perhaps they’re democratic. I think ultimately they’re quite optimistic. I never see them as being ugly or repulsive.
BM How would you define ugly? Visually, can you imagine something you find repulsive?
GC In general?
BM What was it?
GC While I’m thinking about that, I will say that I always set out to make the most technically, formally, aesthetically beautiful photograph I can.
BM A decaying calf with vines growing out of it, with thorns growing out of them—this to you is…
GC It’s a beautiful image. I mean it’s disturbing for many reasons; it’s a cast of my leg as a corpse. But, ultimately, if it wasn’t a compellingly beautiful image, I wouldn’t be interested. I’m enthralled by bringing it to life as a beautiful, hopeful image of transcendence.
BM I’m drawn to these images in the same way that Ralph Waldo Emerson was drawn to open the casket of his first wife. He was moving the gravesite and he looked at his first wife and he later looked into the coffin of his five-year-old son, Waldo, who had died of scarlet fever. I think we’re a strangely squeamish culture, some critics have thought it was either a nightmare or that he really didn’t do it. There’s evidence, in fact, of other people in the 18th and 19th centuries re-opening the graves of their beloved, almost as an empathetic performance or a statement of their own continued connection with these people and the connection to their own mortality. When I look at the lushness of death as it’s described in your work, and the beauty of these bonnets of butterflies and these grids of grapes and ropes and strings, I see it all as a marvelous embrace of humans and what we go through in a lifetime.
GC I can answer your question about what’s horrible to me. Ultimately, probably what scares me most is reality. (laughter) When it’s a representation, when it’s separate from the world, it more effortlessly becomes poetic or beautiful.
BM Do you think to embrace what you fear most is an aspect of being an artist?
BM Also, in your work there’s a magnificent collapsing of time; the corpse is a flower, the carrion is, in fact, the beautiful butterfly. It really is just a matter of time before it gets reintegrated and grows again. That’s often so present in the work, there’s a quality of life and death being simultaneous.
GC That image we spoke of earlier, the transformed leg, locates that moment where the body is incorporating itself and becoming one with the landscape. There’s a confusion and collapsing of the boundaries that hold the body apart from its surroundings. The vines are growing into the leg and sprouting thorns.
BM They’re growing into the leg?
GC Yeah. So there is this mergence between the body and nature.
BM That merging of the grotesque and the sublime is always in the foreground of the photograph. Then, as the eye seeks refuge in the image, it goes back through the amber light; and very often, you put in these serene images of a house where you’ve lived, a barn you remember, a garage or a scene of domestic tranquility. That combination of foregrounding the nexus of sublimity and the grotesque and then putting in the normal, as it were, the everyday…
GC Well, the everyday we strive for, but we don’t actually achieve that either.
BM I think it makes for an incredibly kinetic experience as a viewer, and that goes back to the whole notion of storytelling and narrative. I’m sure you know the installation by Duchamp in Philadelphia, Etant Donnes. Was Duchamp an influence at all?
GC On this most recent work, an absolutely significant influence. Duchamp worked on that installation in absolute secrecy in his guest bedroom.
BM Secrecy was part of the whole aesthetic experience.
GC Exactly. He worked on that piece for the last ten years of his life. I’ve always been captivated by that image. Essentially and interestingly enough, I have only seen the installation through photographs. A few years ago, I had a chance to view the actual installation and I decided against it. It’s like my relationship to my work where I’m only interested finally in the image, not the installation. And I wanted only to know the installation through an image. At some certain point, partially because I was haunted by that photograph of the Duchamp piece, I wanted to incorporate the body into the landscape.
BM Have I accidentally hit upon the most important visual influence?
BM (laughter) That’s amazing. I remember seeing it in Philadelphia for the first time. You approach the peephole through which you have to look, like a young Crewdson with his ear to the floor, and look through this chink in the artificial barn door and see the image of a naked woman, her legs spread, her hair, just a hint of her chin, a lantern up in the air. I wanted so much to move to the right so I could see her face, and of course, Duchamp’s peephole does not allow that. This sublime frustration enhances the metaphysical implications that Duchamp was after, which are that we can’t wholly see the Other. I find with your images that there’s a sense of wanting to move physically to the left or the right and see a hit more, but you’re not going to let us and that’s the way life is. This is one of the great acts of intuitive brilliance in the work, it seems to me.
GC Okay, there’s a lot to respond to. In terms of Duchamp, early on in my first efforts to include the body, I tried using mannequins. Those first images were absolute failures. At some point. I realized it had to be personalized through my own body. Once I made that clarification, it became clear that I had something at stake, that it was my body, my corpse in a sense, and it all started making more sense. Even though these photographs are made in my studio, to me they’re voyeuristic. I’m drawn to photography ultimately through some voyeuristic impulse. The camera gives you an alibi to search into places in your psyche, to unmine the secret mysteries in your life. In the recent photographs, as you suggest, I purposely created a kind of voyeuristic peephole to make it appear like you’re looking in on a secret world.
BM Such as in your photograph of, I don’t know, (laughter) a pile of turquoise scarabs in a vine forest with a black oval?
GC It’s a halo.
BM Oh, floating halos, of course, religious for sure; you also present grids of vegetable, mineral or botanical units, repeated units, like butterflies, or grapes, and the viewer has to wander through that grid. Maybe these grids which you establish give us a sense of stability and the confidence to enter into the scene a little deeper. All the plentitude that you offer and the richness of the color are inviting. We trust you so we strive deeper into the image and that’s where you get us in trouble.
GC I love that.
BM I want to talk a little more about the notion of you as a sculptor. The photograph of the image is a communicative device insofar as it brings the image to us, so we don’t have to go, say, to Philadelphia. You are a multidisciplinary artist. Can you tell me about your work as a sculptor? As diorama?
GC Well, ultimately I do everything so wrongheaded every step of the way. I’ve figured out how to do everything by mistake. You see the perfect images here—but if you came to my studio, it’s an absolute chaotic mess, completely disorienting and confusing. Yes, the work definitely has connections to sculpture and installation and film, but what I’m most interested in is the final picture. I don’t consider myself very good at any particular craft. The only reasons I make installations are because I have an image in my mind of how I want the final photograph to be and I just have to create it to make it look like that. It never, ever looks like what I have in my mind. Something, as I said earlier, always goes wrong.
BM Have you ever killed an animal?
BM Let’s talk about your hover series. At first glance, it would seem to be a radical departure from the earlier work. Gone is the lush color, the controlled studio construct. Now you’re in New England, photographing in black and white, apparently from a crane, or certainly from an altitude, a neighborhood, but it’s clear that Crewdson has been there first. It seems to me that you’ve gone to the opposite end of the spectrum to explore precisely the same human problems. Again, the American myth seems to be at play. Also, the notion that something has happened, something we can’t put our finger on: why, wherefore, what will be the ultimate consequence? There seems to be a very dangerous activity at play. Whether there are humans in the landscape—for instance this photograph of a perfect circle in a backyard—I can’t see any human beings, all I see are their artifacts. It’s almost as if a neutron bomb hit the place, but nobody was at home anyway. It’s all the detritus of our lives, and yet there is this mystical circle, reminiscent of the birds. What is the circle to you?
GC It goes back to my interest in ritual. There’s a lot to speak to in terms of this departure in the work; but to address your question about the circle: an article concerning Hitchcock’sVertigo, which is my favorite film of all time, suggested that the circle is the perfect metaphor for romantic obsession. For me, the circle is a metaphor for obsession, some kind of possibility or non-possibility.
BM Emerson wrote that the eye is the first circle.
GC Wow, I like that.
BM He also said, “There is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning,” which is ultimately the definition of romance. Because when we feel romantic about something, we believe in its perpetuity, that in every moment’s end, there’s a new beginning.
GC Exactly, that carries through all my work. I should speak about the project more because on the surface it is such a dramatic departure. At a certain point I was making photographs of my body as a corpse, photographed in this extraordinarily claustrophobic and horrific fashion. I felt like I needed, for various aesthetic and personal reasons, an absolute change. So I consciously worked to change everything in my production. I went from large scale color work produced in my studio, making dioramic constructions, to photographing outside in an actual place, incorporating the community. I went from photographing in color to photographing black and white, photographing from a very low angle to photographing from the vanishing point of an elevated crane.
BM You have gone from first person to third person narrative.
GC Exactly. But ultimately, what wound up happening is that despite every effort to change all aspects of my production—you can’t get away from yourself. So I found myself investigating similar themes concerning defamiliarization, the uncanny and probably for me, most interestingly, the relationship between nature and domesticity, particularly some kind of disturbance of the landscape and disturbance of normality. What’s most important in this work is the point of view, which is an elevated point of view from an alien perspective looking down on these everyday events. I photographed from the elevated point of view for a number of reasons: one, I liked that sense of voyeurism, looking in upon the world; the other is I liked that free-floating perspective, where it forces the viewer to ask quietly, where am I? The impossibility of point of view.
BM In this new work you seem to be an omniscient narrator as opposed to the earlier work, the “I am here, in the forest. This is my leg, I’m hurt.” In this sense you are more transgressive insofar as you’re not simply all-knowing but you’re omnipotent, because clearly you went into a community and convinced people to change their everyday behavior, change the way their street looks. This fellow here in this extraordinary photograph is sodding the street while his neighbors look on and a policeman in the background watches. Behind all that is Crewdson at work again as the sculptor and omnipotent narrator.
GC The man laying sod is like the bird in the other pictures. He’s a surrogate for me.
BM The birds are surrogates for you?
GC Yeah, in some way. Let me use this picture as an example. I had this image in my mind of a man obsessively attempting to sod the street closed. It’s optimistic, to join one lawn to the next. Part of the project in this work is to convince this neighborhood to take part in this ritual. A lot of the events unfold from this floating perspective. It’s like bearing witness to an event that is on one level very ordinary, sodding your garden or planting rows of flowers, but exaggerating that ordinary event and making it somehow irrational. Sodding the street closed or planting flower beds down the middle of the street is an ordinary event gone inexplicably wrong. One of the great things about being an artist is that you have an image in your mind and you can do it. Or you can try to do it. So we sodded the street closed and I got in the elevated crane, and I was lifted and floating over this scene. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world to hover.
BM I’m fascinated by how it worked out, that you’re becoming a bird in essence. A bird’s eye view has turned all the humans in the photograph into the stuffed birds of your earlier work. They all have their hands in their right pockets. They all look terribly posed.
GC That’s true, they do. I never noticed that.
BM They’re ashamed of one hand or the other. Who knows what that hand was doing? And the fellow in the middle diligently placing the sod, I see it as such a continuation of the earlier work.
GC I was drawn to this neighborhood because it seemed to come right out of my photographs. I wanted to do a suburbanization of Robert Smithson’s Earth Work. So for this photograph I knocked on this woman’s door. She wasn’t home, so I wrote a letter to her and said, “I would like to create a perfect circle of mulch in your backyard and photograph it. Do you mind?” And the next day she left this message on my answering machine, I’ll never forget what she said, “Do what you have to do.” That was amazing to me. I went back that Sunday and she wasn’t home so I worked with the landscapers and we created this mulch circle. I got in the crane, found the perfect perspective and shot. We cleaned it up and she was still gone. I never met her.
BM Are you consciously aware of thematic, or schematic, continuity in your work, that the world itself has become a kind of diorama for you? What does that mean in the long run—the world as a kinetic diorama?
GC It’s sort of a Connecticut diorama. (laughter)
BM As a movable, inedible feast. How does that work, what does that mean?
GC I’ve never really made much of a distinction between photographs made in the studio, or in the outside world—I think those are false distinctions. Essentially I’m interested in photographic beauty, in narrative, the photograph conveying a kind of mystery, a strangeness and a recognizability. I don’t care how I get there. That is inconsequential.
BM I’m reminded of one of my favorite ideas of Emerson’s, which is that the world is the externalization of the soul. Since he is an American philospher/artist, and since you have such a sense of Americanness in your work, how would you respond to that idea?
GC That’s a beautiful statement, and of course it’s quite narcissistic. But as an artist, I fully admit to being narcissistic and a pathetic fool as well.
BM King Lear goes to Concord. It strikes me that really you are still Gregory Crewdson with his ear to the floor upstairs trying to find out what the hell people are thinking.
GC Or what I’m thinking.
BM Or thereby realizing what you’re thinking. It’s so far beyond dreamscape or surreality—it is a fresh reality.
GC That’s what I’m interested in—there’s a paradox in that, as I said earlier on, in a weird way I do consider myself a realist. But finally what I’m trying to do is use realist detail to describe something psychological.
BM To reverse Emerson’s aphorism, the soul is an internalization of the world.
GC Wow. That’s good.
BM I think when I see your photographs, I feel like I’m in the photograph. I internalize it so instantly that there doesn’t seem to be a distinction much between me and it. I relate to it very much as a myth. We live myth. And once you believe myth has a certain value, then everything has a mythic quality. The worlds that you create or manage are really mirrors of the worlds we all create and manage. There’s a great line, “A novel is a mirror walking down the road.” It seems to me that a photograph made by you is also a mirror walking down a road.
GC That’s nice.
BM What’s your sense of your lifetime project? Do you have one or is it a day-by-day of finding out things?
GC As artists we walk around with a single story to tell, some kind of central narrative. And I think the struggle is to attempt to reinvent that story over and over again in different forms and to visualize that story through, in my case, photographs, and try to make it new each time.
—Bradford Morrow’s fourth novel, Giovanni’s Gift, was published this spring by Viking, and is forthcoming in paperback from Penguin in January. He edits the literary journal, Conjunctions, and lives in New York.