Look3: Gregory Crewdson on Inspiration, Repetition, and Huge Productions
Photographer Gregory Crewdson, who has inspired nearly as much awe for the size of his productions as for his evocative, cinematic work, told an audience at Look3 Festival of the Photograph on Saturday that he’s just starting a new body of work, and he’s done with shooting huge productions.
Crewdson offered no details about his latest project. “I don’t want to go too much more into it, because honestly it’s a bit of a mystery for myself,” he said. But he also said, “I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the [production] scale of Beneath the Roses. I feel no need to. So what happens next is going to be a smaller version of that.”
Crewdson made the remarks at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville Saturday afternoon, when he appeared on stage for a conversation about his work and career with NPR host Alex Chadwick.
Crewdson is known for his elaborately lit tableaux, shot at twilight in declining towns and neighborhoods of New England, that capture a sense of anxiety, mystery and foreboding.
“It’s always [my] interest in trying to tell a story through light and color. That’s essentially what I’m attempting to do,” he explained. “Photography has a very limited capacity to tell a story. Whatever story we could manage in the end remains a mystery. I’ve always loved that about photography: its restriction, its containment.”
During his conversation with Chadwick, Crewdson talked with self-effacing humor about the source of his creative inspiration, while telling stories about the location scouting, talent scouting, sets and props behind various images.
And he stopped just short of declaring that creatively, he’s a broken record.
“I firmly believe that you tell the same story in different versions and different parameters, over and over again,” he said. “If you look at the pictures that were made when I was in my early 20s, they are essentially the same pictures that I’m making now. [It's] sort of depressing. But I think we’re all confined to that: to spend a lifetime trying to continually re-invent yourself as a photographer. At the core, your pictures are different versions of the same story.”
What follows is an edited transcript of his conversation with Chadwick.
Alex Chadwick: You told me a story about when you were a boy…
Gregory Crewdson: I grew up in Brooklyn. My father was a psychoanalyst, and his office was in the basement of our home. I have an early memory of attempting to listen to the sessions [through the floorboards], and trying to create an image of what I thought I heard. I was too young to even know what my father did with strangers, but I [knew] that it was forbidden, and secret and mysterious. This was my earliest inkling of having a particularly view of the world.
AC: To describe that as an esthetic experience, later on it becomes that. First it must have been childhood curiosity [about] what is going on.
GC: Right, it’s this idea of trying to tell a story, I think. I think that’s implied in all my pictures. Trying to create a story from what’s around you, from the ordinary, the familiar, from everyday life. So that early memory I think really is evocative for me on many levels
This sense of separation, a sense of voyeurism, a sense of wanting to make a connection to something that’s not there, I could even say wanting to make a connection to my father. And all of this occurring within domestic–home–is a central theme running through all of my pictures.
AC: The theme of documenting returns again and again [this weekend at the Look3 festival]. I think that applies to your work in a certain way. Maybe you could speak to that.
GC: On some basic level, all photographs are connected to truth, I think. The very act of making a picture in any circumstance is an act of documentation, it’s an act or representation. I have always loved photography because of its connection to truth, but I equally love photography because of its connection to fiction. I think every picture is both at the same time, at the same instance, it’s truthful and fictive.
AC: You’re shooting in these rural New England communities, where prosperity has kind of passed them by. How are you explaining to these people what you’re doing? What do you say? What’s their reaction?
GC: I’ve been making the same picture in the same place for over 25 years. The less amount of explaining I need to do, the better.
It’s always this interest in trying to tell a story through light and color. That’s essentially what I’m attempting to do. It goes without saying that photography has an uneasy relationship to narrative. In other words, unlike other narrative forms, like a film or literature, a photograph is frozen–there’s no beginning and there’s no end. It has a very limited capacity to tell a story. Whatever story we could manage in the end remains a mystery. I’ve always loved that about photography: its restriction, its containment.
AC: [In] the next stage of your work, you’re trying to add narrative to these photographs. OK, it’s just one still image, but I can see it’s like a frame from a movie. Is that what you’re consciously trying to do?
GC: First and foremost is [that I'm] trying to make a compelling picture–a picture that is beautiful, mysterious and means something, feels subjective in some way. I think that throughout my career as an artist I’ve invested enormous amounts of energies into trying to make that one picture exist in its own world, in its own ether. Again there’s no before or after. I’m not concerned about telling a story in a conventional sense.
AC: This is still a neighborhood that you’re in, these are dioramas you’ve constructed. You’re not in a little town in Massachusetts anymore.
GC: Right. The early pictures you saw were photographs I made while at Yale. These pictures [from the Natural Wonder series, one example here] came later.
I became more involved in trying to create a world through a completely artificial landscape. But even in these pictures, I feel that all the details mean something, and that in a certain way they’re strangely realist, even though they are completely artificial.
AC: Where are you in your life adventure when you begin this series [called Hover, of suburban backyards, shot from a high vantage point]? This presages a lot of your work.
GC: I had just figured making the Natural Wonder pictures,I was going though a lot of difficulty in my personal life. My first marriage was ending, and I felt like those tableaux, the diorama pictures, had reached a certain kind of saturation point and I wanted to dramatically change my work. I started having recurring dreams of floating. I acted on those dreams, and decided I wanted to make a series of pictures called Hover, all taken from the elevated point of view of a crane. I really liked this idea of being there but not there, in a certain way, like an establishing shot in a film. And so I went back to the same neighborhoods that I made those earlier pictures, and made these pictures where there were these kinds of interventions in these neighborhoods, using the inhabitants of the neighborhood. In this picture, I wanted to make a picture of a man sodding his street closed, and the sort of idealistic moment of trying to make connections with your neighbors. (Ripples of laughter from the audience). I’ve always loved sod as a material. I’ve used it over and over again. It’s like, regenerative.
AC: You don’t meet that many people who work in sod. Not artists, anyway.
AC: I can’t recall if the bear in this picture [of a dog catcher confronting a bear, from the Hover series] was a live bear, or a borrowed taxidermic bear.
GC: The bear was live, but the dog catcher was stuffed.
There a good story that goes along with this photograph [of a perfect circle of mulch in a backyard, from the Hover series] that I’d like tell. Circles or O’s, that’s another motif that runs through my pictures. I wanted to do a perfect circle of mulch in someone’s backyard. And so I found what I thought would be the perfect location, and knocked on the door of this homeowner. They weren’t home, so I wrote a note: “Dear homeowner, I would like to make a perfect circle of mulch in your backyard and photograph it from an elevated point of view of a crane.” I left a phone number to my parent’s country house, and the very next day there was one message on the answering machine. I’ve always regretted not saving it, because it was such great words of wisdom. [The homeowner] called back and all she said was, “Do what you have to do.” (laughter) Words to live by.
AC: [Then] you begin on Twilight [the series after Hover].
GC: I knew in Twilight that I wanted to start working with cinematic lighting. I had met a guy who was a director of photography [in the film industry] and as soon as we met I had a vision of the kind of pictures we could do. In those early Twilight pictures, we were making pictures with a very small group, and it felt really exciting.
AC: You said that Spielberg is an influence on your work.
GC: Close Encounters of the Third Kind is like a touchstone for my pictures. It’s I think Spielberg’s greatest film. I could completely relate to the tension in that movie between normality and paranormality. I’m not interested in the alien part. I’m interested in the lighting part, and using light to connect to something larger than yourself. And I love the main character building different mounds and piles.
When we started working with all this artificial light in the exteriors, at a certain point I realized there’s only a small window of opportunity to use [artificial] light in concert with the ambient light of the sun. Just by a matter of circumstance or logistics we started photographing in Twilight. And because of that I started thinking of twilight as the central them in the work, as a moment in between day and night, a moment that’s evocative and mysterious.
AC: One thing that has struck me in looking at your work is your relationship to women. Because When there are people in your photographs, they are almost always women.
GC: And they’re usually floating in water?
GC: This picture [first image] was made in Rutland, Vermont. It’s hard to see in the image, but halfway down the street on the left is a pregnancy center. First of all, I responded to the street. I love the emptiness of it, and the architecture it. But I knew immediately that the pregnancy center was going to be the narrative focus point. The day before [the shoot] when we were doing set-ups for the lights, this young woman who was 17 or 18 was going into the pregnancy center. I immediately knew I wanted to put her in the picture. I love the idea of a lone woman, standing at the corner, pregnant, the yellow light. It’s all evocative of a moment that’s unresolved. I’ve photographed pregnant women before and I think it’s that weird in-between state that I respond to.
Same with the [car]. It was mentioned in the introduction that I use basically the same car over and over again. There are these nondescript cars that I really love. I’m not quite sure why I like those cars so much, but maybe it has to do with the fact that I was influenced as a younger artist by
Joel Sternfeld’s and Stephen Shore’s work. They made pictures in the 70s, and those cars inhabited the landscape then.
AC: In those small towns, most of the cars still look like that.
GC: Yeah, well they’re disappearing. We actually have an intern whose sole job it is to find those cars in those neighborhoods, and then write a note (to the owner, to rent the car). But what I was going to say, and this is now [the] Beneath the Roses [project] and so many of those cars [in that series] have their door open. I didn’t even realize it until later when I was in post production [andI wondered], Why didn’t someone tell me I’m keeping the doors open on all the cars? I think the reason [I'm doing that] is probably that car door opens, you’re neither here nor there, you’re in between places.
AC: So this puts the lie to my women theory, since there’s a couple here [in this image, shown at top and bottom of page]. They both have the quality of distress.
GC: I think women, from my vantage point, it’s like A fascination. There’s a certain amount of fascination and terror, you know.
AC: You know, fessing up to that is a big step for you. (laughter)
GC: There’s a certain type of woman I’m drawn to photograph, who is middle aged. Obviously there’s a beauty but also a sadness.
AC: I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with this [picture, second image]. [The woman shown] is younger and more Rubensesque than most of your figures.
GC: Right. That’s like an intimate pictures as far as my pictures go, and yet there’s no physical contact between them. I think there’s one picture [of mine] where there is intimacy.
I don’t know what my pictures are about, really, but if i were to guess, I think particularly in Beneath the Roses, they’re about some kind of search for connection.
AC: I’ve been thinking about the quality of the women, what do they share…It’s almost like they’re hearing voices.
GC: I have a story about that picture [sixth image]. This was done on the sound stage; it was completely built. In Beneath the Roses, there are exteriors and interiors, and the interiors are all built from nothing. And obviously I’m very involved with framing devices, and mirrors, and reflections. I wound up wanting to photograph this woman. She’s exactly the type that I’m interested in. She called me the day before, very upset. She said she couldn’t do the picture because she was menstruating. On the phone we had this long conversation about regret and the fact she’s in a new relationship, and that she possibly wanted to have a child, and she’s thinking that she’s reaching a certain age where that’s going to be impossible. And I’m like, whoa! That’s an intense conversation to have with someone I don’t know. And she basically got off the phone saying she wouldn’t be doing the picture.
So I thought about it, called her back and said, Well, why don’t we incorporate that into the story of the photograph? And you’ll notice that there is blood on her thigh, which is stage blood, actually, because by the time we made the picture, we lost that opportunity. (Laughter.) But to me it makes the picture. I guess what I’m saying is, like, obviously my pictures are these big productions and I’ve been criticized for making photographs that have no room for something spontaneous or unexpected. The fact is, [with] every single picture, there’s something unexpected, and something that is surprising, and something foreign that happens, and to me that’s what make the pictures.
AC: Because you put that in, or you discover it later?
GC: It’s an act of discovery. My pictures are about trying to create a perfect world and then something happens, somethings shifts, and that’s where the mystery is.
GC: Beneath the Roses was eight productions over eight years, this epic body of work. This [image] was toward the end of the project, where I did these … snow pictures. That was by far the hardest body of work we attempted to achieve, because of the snow. In a lot of cases, We had snow machines, but because this was such a big space, that wasn’t possible. So we waited for a snow storm, once it was forecasted we got permission to close down the street.
The movie theater is actually a senior citizen home. But I wanted to write on the marquee a movie. And I spent months trying to figure out what would be the best title on the marquee. I went through so many possibilities. Brief Encounters made perfect sense, because that’s what my pictures are about.
AC: Where are you in your life with these images?
GC: I was teaching. My second marriage was falling apart. What can I say? I think all the photographers in this room would accept the notion that photography is a lonely endeavor. There’s something particularly isolating about making pictures. The very just act of putting camera to your eye is an act of distancing, of separation. I guess [my] pictures reflect all of that.
AC: You’re working with crews that are fairly large. Are you actually taking the picture? Or do you have your DOP sometimes take the picture when you say OK, I know this is the moment, I know what’s going to be on this file, so go ahead.
GC: I frame the picture, but I don’t actually take the picture, because I’m much more interested in what’s in front of me. There is no way I would be able to make these pictures and be behind the camera at the same time. The other thing is, the camera never moves, once it’s framed, because we composite different negatives later in post production.
AC: Are you’re directing?
GC: You could call it directing. I’m walking around in nervous circles, basically, and then making very subtle changes to the subject. Like in this picture, that’s a young boy named Shane–one of my favorite pictures–he was following us around on the set two days before. He’s very beautiful. I wanted to make a picture of him underneath these train tracks. I set up the picture, he must have been 9 or 10 years old, he was very nervous. I always know exactly how I want [my subjects] to stand. In between every single shot, I would go behind him and I would whisper, “Just imagine that you’re in the most beautiful place in the world.”
AC: How was this work [Beneath the Roses] being received [at the time]?
GC: By this time I’m visible for both good and bad reasons I guess. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to make the pictures that I’ve been able to make, because they’re not easy to make, they’re very expensive to produce. But it’s the only way I know how to make a picture, in a sense, and it’s the pictures that are in my head, so I can’t really think too much about whether people like them or not.
This picture was done on a sound stage. This woman in the photograph had just given birth to her child, who was like a week old. The set is completely inspired by the motel in Hitchcock’s [film] Psycho, down to the exact formation of the bathroom and the bed and everything. I think that maybe inspires a certain amount of dread. There’s no contact between them [mother and child] I was insistent [on that], and that’s what makes it very anxious.
Every time we tried to put baby down on the bed, it started crying because it wanted to be warm, and I was making it lay by itself naked on the corner of the bed. We kept trying over and over again for hours, and every single time the baby started crying. Someone finally figured out that we should put a heating blanket underneath the sheet, so it was warm, and the baby went to sleep. I like that picture.
GC: I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I think [this] might be a reference to a portrait of my father.
He died right at the beginning of Twilight, so he was never able to see all these pictures. But I think toward the end of his life, he had a similar appearance. I think [the picture] references his office and his chair. He was as inspirational as my mother is. I think he hangs over my pictures…the ghost of him
GC: You might have noticed that, going from Twilight to Beneath the Roses, although the production gets bigger, the narrative event becomes smaller. So in these last pictures, almost nothing is happening in the photographs. It’s very much about the landscape and these small figures. They’ve purposely been drained of narrative, it’s like, emptied out.
AC: This begins a new series from your latest book, Sanctuary. You find yourself in Rome in 2009.
GC: At the end of Beneath the Roses, it was such an epic project, I felt I wanted to do something on a much smaller scale, more intimate, and try to challenge myself in every imaginable way. I did these pictures on the back lot of [an Italian movie studio]. I wanted to reference the classic tradition of documentary photography.
Although they’re dramatically different in terms of subject matter and production, at the end I feel they’re very similar in terms of the core interest in the relationship between film and photography, beauty and sadness, and that kind of beauty and decay. It’s all ambient light [but] I had to bring the fog machines, of course.
AC: What kind of crew did you have?
GC: A very small Italian crew. They’re shot digitally, too, and without people [in the scenes]. Soft props, we call them. Makes things a lot easier.
AC: You’ve said you keep telling the same story again and again and again. Are there stages that you recognize when you look back?
GC: When you look at the retrospective we’ve seen today, there are obviously concrete changes in the way the pictures are made. But I do strongly believe that when you are coming of age as a photographer, that’s when you have your inspirations and your preoccupations and they’re kind of set, then over a lifetime, you attempt to re-work those things over and over again. And over the course of a career, you hope in the end, the pictures that you’ve made, tell your particular story. That they express your particular view of the world.
Questions from the audience
Nick Nichols: What are you thinking about next for yourself as a photographer?
GC: Just beginning work on a new body of pictures. I recently moved to Massachusetts. I live in a church there, another sanctuary, and I’m starting the process of making pictures this summer, returning to the same place that I’ve always been, but I think the pictures have a different quality. I don’t want to go too much more into it, because honestly it’s a bit of a mystery for myself.
Q: When you begin a project like Beneath the Roses, do you know how many images you’re going to start, or do you come to a point where you’ve said what you wanted to say?
GC: Beneath the Roses lasted forever. As I mentioned there were 8 productions. I knew immediately at the end that this project was over. And that was very sad, but I knew that I knew how to make this picture, and I knew that I had to move on to other pictures. But that’s a very elusive feeling. It’s really hard to know when a project begins or ends, actually.
Q: I’m curious if you have any suggestions how photojournalists might make their work more collectible or make more money?
GC: Honestly I don’t know how to answer that questions, but I don’t like to make distinctions between different ways to make pictures. I know this is not answering your question, but as I said, every artist is looking for a way to represent the world, and that’s the most important thing to me: being honest or true to your particular view of the world.
Q: I was wondering where your mother was when you had your ear to the floor [listening to your father's psychoanalysis sessions]?
GC: She was there. And my mother is always important and inspirational in my life. I feel like they had a great marriage, and they were great parents. I’m always asked where does that ennui in my own pictures come from, because I feel like my life is quite stable in a lot of ways, growing up, so I don’t know.
Q: Do the Sanctuary photographs indicate an ongoing move away from big production photography?
GC: I feel like the Sanctuary pictures are a stand-alone project. They are the only pictures I made outside of America, outside of Massachusetts. I feel like they stand alone in a certain way, but they were very instructive to me in other ways. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the [production] scale of Beneath the Roses, I feel no need to. So what happens next is going to be somewhere, like a smaller version of that.
Q: How have you avoided the seductive call of movies?
GC: This question comes up a lot. I think [making a movie] would be really exciting to do, [but] in the end, I’m very limited in terms of my view. I think in terms of single images [not] narratives in that conventional sense. And I know If I were to make a movie, it would be the most expensive, most boring movie ever made.