Gregory Crewdson

Published:  Esquire Art 2007 – 2010

In the summer of 1996 the photographer Gregory Crewdson spent two months alone in a cabin in a remote part of Massachusetts. Crewdson, who often seems the most stagy and theatrical photographer, simply took black and white photographs of fireflies. The photographs include his signature sense of disturbance and mystery, of a drama caught at one of its most deeply suggestive moments. They offer stillness as a sort of dream, a sort of creepiness, and beauty as something fleeting and untrustworthy.
These photographs are untypical of his work, yet they offer, nonetheless, an interesting key to Crewdson’s visual imagination. First, despite what might seem like a sort of minimalism, they are almost laden down with coiled emotion; they contain almost unbearable levels of feeling. They have a dark poetic and hard-won beauty buried in them. Second, the fireflies themselves, in their various guises, offer a focus, but once the eye moves from them to the dark or darkening and unpeopled world around them, often with trees or an object (such as a jar), then something hits the nervous system and the photographs become deeply strange and compelling.
This is also what happens in Crewdson’s photographs of disturbed suburban life, his images of the complacent world as dream or nightmare, or as it might appear after an accident or a disaster of some sort. Or during an apparition. Patterns of repose and comfort – streets, living-rooms, bedrooms, gardens, fences, figures in domestic settings – are made seem like astonishing creations heavy with meanings too deep for us to decipher, with emotion shimmering over every inch of the frame. This is the work for which Crewdson is best known.
At first the drama seems obvious – it is in the figure, the shaft of light, the disturbance, what has been uprooted or unsettled or is burning or moving. But then as the eye roams towards what is at the edge of the photograph, a horizon, for example, or a tree, or a sky, or a tiny detail can take on an extraordinary level of significance and anxiety and make you almost want to turn away.
Crewdson’s images are sometimes playful and magical; some are almost funny. Others are highly disturbing, especially when there is no obvious sign of disturbance. There is a great mysterious precision in what he does – even if it is a photograph of what might seem like an accident he leaves you in no doubt that this was not a scene casually encountered while he was going for a stroll, but something created, built, the objects placed, and lit and controlled. Like God, Gregory Crewdson did not just find the world, he made it.
Gregory Crewdson was born in Brooklyn in 1962. His father was a shrink. (He could often hear the patients talk through the floorboards which must have been fun.) He played in a punk band before he became a photographer. Although his photographs shatter comfort zones, they avoid the banality of mere social satire or commentary. There is a hushed halo, a sense of pure wonder that you can get in Spielberg, in many of them, even the most contrived.
Crewdson inhabits the shivering space in the gated community of the American unconscious where Donna Reed stares from one window catching the eye of David Lynch staring from another. The safety of a car, a roof over your head, the small town ease invested in dull main streets, lawns, clapboard houses, tamed landscape are all rendered eerie, ghostly in his photographs. His figures seem hypnotized and mildly bewildered in the theatre of cruelty he has made for them, or the visionary universe, or the moment redolent of the horror film, or the scene from the classic American landscape photograph.
His tense images may seem like movie stills – and he has used famous actors for some shots including Gwyneth Paltrow, Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman – but they have an iconic appearance, with no possibility of a before or after. They are, oddly enough, closer to pieces of sculpture than slices of film, being full of polish and finish. Crewdson might also seem to be working like a dramatist, but in fact he is much closer to poets like William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens in his interest in rendering the familiar strange, in briefly dismantling the known world.
‘Ultimately,’ Crewdson has said, ‘what scares me most is reality.’ Just as he frames the world in his lens, he is fascinated by light itself, by twilight, by shafts of light, by lamplight, by light from windows. His reality is sharpened by the idea not of the next frame, but rather that it will all fade as light fades, it is all in a process of disintegration and decay.