Woman at Window: Lucy Soutter on Gregory Crewdson’s Cathedral of the Pines

In this essay taken from the latest issue of our gallery publication Loose Associations, artist, critic and art historian Lucy Soutter considers photographer Gregory Crewdson’s distinctive “visual voice”, and the specific relationship between an author, a text and their readers in both literary and photographic terms.

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I have been interested for a while in the question of whether a photographer can develop a distinctive visual “voice,” parallel to voice in literature and whether such a visual voice can carry a similar sensibility to an authorial narrator. Certainly, there are photographers who develop a singular style that sets their work apart. Gregory Crewdson, with his obsessive attention to detail and focus on small town America has produced one of our most recognisable bodies of photographic work, even as it has evolved from project to project. Crewdson’s work is frequently described as cinematic, and with good reason. His sky-high production values are produced with the kind of full crew that works on a movie. So why talk about Crewdson in relation to literary voice rather than cinematic style? In my mind, the still image makes greater demands than a film on the projective imagination of a viewer. While the answer to “what’s going on here?” or “what happens next?” is typically provided in a movie, the still photograph leaves its audience guessing. The job of looking at narrative photographs does seem closer to reading literary fiction, a task in which the unfolding of constructed worlds takes place largely in the mind’s eye.

Gregory Crewdson, Mother and Daughter, 2014. © Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Which brings me to the question of how to “read” the complex narrative provocations thrown up by Crewdson’s work. He produces astonishingly wrought images of figures placed within the domestic spaces and landscapes of a small New England town, viewed either in the depths of winter or the lushness of summer. Each image focuses on one, two or three figures. They are each engaged with a small enigma and/or caught in a state of contemplation. The pictures have such extreme detail we might refer to them as forensic, and indeed the kinds of visual details on which they centre frequently seem like clues, to a mystery if not to a crime. For example, individual pictures pivot on a scattering of flower petals on a filthy mattress in the woods, a trace of blood in an over flowing kitchen sink, or a cardboard box lid holding dead songbirds. As with literary voice, a writer’s particular use of syntax, pacing, vocabulary, etc, Crewdson’s visual style has recognisable elements that recur from picture to picture, such as a cool, murky palette, particular perspectives into the corners of rooms and careful use of pockets of illumination. Where I am going with this, is to consider whether we can compare or adapt the quite specific relationship between an author, a text and their readers to a photographer, a photograph and their viewers. Given that a single photographic tableau has no back story or character development, how do we connect with the subjects (characters)?

Gregory Crewdson, The Motel, 2014. © Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

In Crewdson’s latest series, Cathedral of the Pines, I am struck more than ever by the specificity of the physical experiences evoked by the immersive images. When I look at these pictures I experience what literary theorists call “situational empathy;” my mind is transported to such a place, the feeling of cheap carpet underfoot, the particular quality of morning light in a room, or even the smell of a pine forest. What has always perplexed me about Crewdson’s pictures is how little I identify with the usually female figures within them. Try as I might to project myself into their thoughts, into their emotional experience, I find myself feeling shut out from them. Is it that I do not identify with them or that I do not want to identify with women in such bleak scenarios, redolent of trauma and abuse? I am, after all, the sort of woman who tends to walk out of a movie if a woman gets raped (I have had to walk out of a lot of Hollywood movies), even if it means that I miss the pay-off of the rapist getting his comeuppance later on. Do we need to identify or empathise with the characters to find meaning or resolution in narrative images? Or rather, what is the point of empathy in art or in life? Over the past few years there has been an empathy debate raging. For centuries, most scholars agreed that any activity that involved trying to imagine another person’s experience must be humanising, civilising. Recently a broader range of critical positions on empathy has emerged. While historian Lynn Hunt has argued that the promotion of projective empathy through art forms such as the novel laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement, psychologist Paul Bloom has argued that identifying too closely with the suffering of particular individuals risks blinding us to the big  picture of suffering, what he calls the “statistical suffering” of all those who are not represented. So, on the one hand the empathic experiences generated by art may train us to be better, more prosocial individuals or on the other they may serve to soothe our troubled consciences, allowing us to feel the plight of isolated individuals while lulling us into complacency about the rest. Feminists and post-colonial theorists are sometimes suspicious of empathy in art on the grounds that it can be condescending or universalising, thus reinforcing hegemonic positions. English Professor and human rights scholar James Dawes has written of some of the narcissistic impulses behind the urge to empathise: voyeurism, a desire to feel smug about our emotional generosity, or perhaps worst of all a desire to break up the boredom of over-privileged lives.

Behind the Scenes Image from Cathedral of the Pines © Crewdson Studio. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

There is a dedication, an earnestness to Crewdson’s Cathedral of the Pines images that leads me to believe that he himself identifies with his subjects, that they enact dramas with deep resonance in his own psychic universe. How and why else could he keep producing work with such a consistent, compelling “voice”? Crewdson the author has convinced me of his sincerity. Crewdson the narrator has vividly evoked the experience of particular environments, but he has not drawn me into empathetic engagement with his characters. I am not sure that it matters. As is sometimes the case when reading a novel, I appreciate the mastery of the telling without becoming immersed in the tale. Perhaps I have spent too many winters in draughty houses in New England. Poetic licence aside, I know for sure that women don’t stand around naked in front of windows looking out over icy lakes. It is too damn cold.

Lucy Soutter

Lucy Soutter is an artist, critic and art historian. She is the author of Why Art Photography? (London: Routledge, 2013) and is the Course Leader of the Photography Arts MA at the University of Westminster.

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