Image: Behind the Scenes Image from Cathedral of the Pines(detail) © Crewdson Studio. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
In this short essay, Clare Grafik considers her first encounter with Gregory Crewdson’s work, in relationship to his new project Cathedral of the Pines, currently on view at TPG. The essay is available in the new issue of Loose Associations, our gallery publication dedicated to photography and image culture.
I first came across Gregory Crewdson’s work in a catalogue of the now seminal MoMA exhibition Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort by Peter Galassi in 1991. This exhibition and book featured establishment figures from the American photographic scene such as Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston, alongside artists including Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Nan Goldin and the emerging figures of Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, and Crewdson himself. The dynamism of Galassi’s curation, which juxtaposed works across genres and contrasted established and experimental practices, was formative for a new generation of photographers. Pleasures and Terrors… also excavated a subject which would continue to fascinate and inspire Crewdson in particular: the contemporary state of the American Dream and the dark underpinnings of the suburban psyche.
Crewdson’s early images, which utilised maquettes of small town streets and off-scale taxidermy animals, were striking surrealist dioramas. However, it was his two subsequent series Twilight (1998-2001) and Beneath the Roses (2003-08) that would identify him as a groundbreaking image-maker. Using production crews, lighting experts, actors and meticulous post-production processes, his photographs were cinematic in both scale and subject – relating more closely to the work of American filmmakers or painters such as Edward Hopper than to photography. Crewdson cites David Lynch’s 1986 neo-noir drama Blue Velvet and Spielberg’s earlier science fiction masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) as particularly influential. However, Crewdson’s meticulously constructed mini-dramas deliberately hint at a narrative which never unfolds.
It is interesting to know that Crewdson’s father was a psychoanalyst – the artist recounts eavesdropping as a child on his father’s sessions with clients from the floor above. We can imagine how snatches of incomplete conversations about the most intimate fears, obsessions and foibles of ordinary people may have influenced his creative interests and outlook. In his images, the streets and interiors of small-town America are settings for photographic incarnations of the uncanny, stage sets for not-so-subconscious alienation: a figure sits alone in a car at a cross roads, the driver has disappeared and left the door wide open; a woman stares into the middle distance as she sinks (floats?) in water which threatens to engulf a disassembling living room; figures stand impassively across a disused railway track watching a local house disappear in flames.
Crewdson’s most recent series Cathedral of the Pines (2013-14) is fascinating for both the similarities and differences to previous projects. Emerging from a period of creative and personal crisis, he states ‘It was deep in the forests of Becket, Massachusetts that I finally felt darkness lift, experienced a reconnection with my artistic process.’ Here subjects pose within the small rural town of Becket, Massachusetts, and its vast surrounding forests, including the hiking trail from which the series takes its title. Despite retaining a characteristic cinematic feel, these new works have a deliberate “ hyper” naturalism – where subjects are no longer seen drifting through tarmacked streets but, rather, gaze from claustrophobic cabin interiors out onto frozen lakes or are dwarfed against the vertical architecture of the forest. His most personal work to date, these images offer us a landscape which both dominates and reflects the brooding impassivity of the human psyche made more striking in its inhuman scale.
Clare Grafik is Head of Exhibitions at The Photographers’ Gallery