Sense of Place A Conversation with Gregory Crewdson
The Becket Pictures is a show at the Frac Auvergne (May 20–September 17) bringing together two series that Gregory Crewdson made at an interval of twenty years, using radically different approaches. However, this contrast is counterbalanced by their shared location, the small town of Becket, Massachusetts, which gives us a strong sense of the importance of place in the work of this photographic storyteller.
Cathedral of the Pines is your most recent body of work. You made it after leaving New York for a small town in Massachusetts. Does this series mean a new step in your life and in your work as well? I would definitely say so. These pictures felt like a departure, they felt very connected with changes in my personal life. I guess in all this there is a connection between life and art. What are the main differences between Cathedral of the Pines and Twilight and Beneath the Roses? The pictures generally are more intimate, certainly more personal. They feel more emotionally true. They are
more fundamental. They are connected to very direct feelings and emotions.
You mean your feelings and emotions? Yes, definitely, although my pictures are never directly autobiographical. There is always a blurred line between fiction and reality. But these pictures came out of real, direct experience. Were there differences between Twilight
and Beneath the Roses? You have to look at everything as an evolution of sorts. Pictures I made in Twilight were very much connected to my life and experience during that period. That was the same with Beneath the Roses. The consistency is pretty clear. In all my pictures I feel like I’m a storyteller. I try to tell stories in pictures and to create a kind of world. At least to me, they are very different psychologically. They are very different in terms of the sensibility of the work. Are these differences also a question of production? The first Twilight pictures felt very radical to me. I was using for the first time cinematic lighting and production in still photographs. In a certain way, I felt like perhaps I was intoxicated with the possibility of what to do in terms of narrative and lighting. As I have grown as an artist, the pictures have become more and more ambiguous. In a literal way, less is happening, almost nothing is happening in the more recent pictures. If nothing happens in the pictures, what can the viewer find in them? It has become a more formal exploration. There are certainly themes in Cathedral of the Pines that deal with the relationship the figure has to the setting and hownatural places are a central theme in the work, how windows and doorways are used. All these things work together. In Cathedral of the Pines, inside and outside spaces are connected, as opposed to your former series that were divided into soundstage works and location works. For Cathedral of the Pines, everything was shot on location, in homes or in landscapes. When we were shooting interiors there was this real interest in the relationship between interior and exterior space. We used the window as a meditation, as a separation between those spaces. In Twilight there is a connection between the shown room and the hidden basement. Is this relation between spaces a metaphor? I always tried to have a relationship between interior and exterior spaces. That should be read metaphorically or psychologically. A window is something that separates the figure from the interior and the exterior. I see it as a possibility to connect to something
larger or to emphasize the sense of alienation. Cathedral of the Pines was very influenced by nineteenth-century painting, using that motif of light from the exterior, as the central narrative light. Is this why there are many paintings in the inside pictures of Cathedral of the Pines? That was conscious. All these paintings are also referencing nature in some way or another. So there are all these references to nature, through, like, the wood paneling, or the paintings on the walls or the windows. All these things are referencing the outside world.
THE MOST BASIC PICTURES You are also showing Fireflies, a series of black and white snapshots from 1996. What is the story of this series? I spent a summer photographing Fireflies every twilight. What also interested me is that Fireflies and Cathedral of the Pines were made in the same town, Becket. They are connected through that. Although they couldn't be more different in terms of production, there is an interest in the idea of light as a narrative code and in twilight as a magical moment or a moment of transition. There is that idea of looking to try to find mystery in everyday life. So they are more connected than you would think.
Did you rediscover Fireflies? For whatever reason, I couldn't really appreciate or deal with the pictures. I never even made final prints. I just put all the contact prints and the negatives in a box and put them away for ten years. Ten years later, I rediscovered them and fell in love with them. Now, for me, they are very important pictures, deeply meaningful.
In what ways? They represent a time where I was isolated and alone and trying to make sense of the world. I liked that I made these pictures in the most fundamental way. They are the most basic pictures you could make. It's just light and film. There’s something very romantic about that notion. At that time, you were also making Natural
Wonder, a very different series of dioramas with plants, animals and, sometimes, body parts. How are the two series connected? Everything is connected in its own way. It's the idea of representing nature and looking to find some elements of darkness in the natural world, I guess. Speaking of Fireflies and Cathedral of the Pines, is one of the two series more photographic than the other? They are equally photographic and equally personal. I really like the idea of showing them together because they are like bookends of the same story. And I love that they are tied together by location and a sense of place.
What do you mean by a sense of place? In my photographs the sense of place is very important: setting, landscape. The fact that both of the series were made in this very small county called Becket is really important to the work. Your work seems also related to cinema and painting. Is your work closer to cinema and painting than to photography? At the core, they are really mostly concerned with photographs. They are definitely influenced by movies and paintings but in the most fundamental level they are still photographs and they operate as such. Are they related to some photography you like? What kind of photography? I'm a great lover of photography, of the tradition of art photography. The artists I feel most aligned with are Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld…
They are documentary photographers. They are all exploring the American landscape. They have a practical view of it. They are interested in ordinary life and trying to find drama in everyday life. I sort of borrow those conventions and bring my own kind of storytelling, bring a kind of drama to those conventions. How would you define your work? You said you were a storyteller. How do you tell a story with photography? Photographs, unlike movies, literature and other narrative forms, is very limited in terms of the story to tell. It's a frozen and still image. It's restric- ted. So I try to tell stories through form, light, color, space, description, gesture. You have to use the limitations as strengths. Do you expect the viewer to imagine the rest of the stories or do you show autono
mous situations? I definitely want the viewers to bring their own narratives to the pictures, their own particular history and their own sense of invention. In the end I want the pictures to remain a mystery and remain a question. I want the viewer to complete it in some way.
How does a picture pop up in your head? I’m a long distance swimmer. I swim during the summer in lakes and during the winter in pools. Through the process of swimming usually images come to me. Also driving around, like location scouting, helps a lot.
Is location the most important? Yes, the story always comes from the place. What are the main characteristics of these places? It’s first of all some places that feel familiar and ordinary, nondescript in a way, not fantastical in any way—kind of American and ordinary. Something I also look for is that it feels outside of time. There is nothing contemporary in the image. Don’t you want to speak about the contemporary American state-of-mind? I do, but I
want it to feel timeless, like a dream, not the actual place. It could be anywhere but nowhere.
How does the narrative enter the picture? None of it is easy. The idea is that the narrative feels real and direct, whether you are inside or outside. Your pictures show heavy psychological situations. People are isolated, couples seem unhappy to be together, parents and children don’t talk… Where does it come
from? It’s just the way I see it. It’s important to say that I always see it as a sense of possibility in the work. A kind of sadness means a kind of beauty. The figures might be isolated, but the light and the color can create a mood that feels transformative. Your father was a psychoanalyst and you tried to listen to his conversations. Later you wanted to become a psychoanalyst yourself. How is your work connected with psychoanalysis? It certainly has a psychological element and it certainly was influenced by my father and his practice in our house, also by the fact that in an ordinary life there could be secrets that are withheld from you, separated from you. So I feel I have put that in my work. My sister is a psychiatrist too, so it definitely runs in the family.
Do your pictures show specific cases? It
could suggest that but not show it.
How decisive is the size of a picture? Each
series has a different size. Beneath the Roses are quite big, 4 by 8 feet. In comparison, Cathedral of the Pines are a bit smaller. I wanted them to feel more like windows or like paintings. They are more intimate. Every body of work has is own scale.
NO PHOTOGRAPHY Why are your photographs so perfect,
without any grain or blur? I want them to feel like as unmediated as possible. Where the viewer can just fall into the picture. I’m paradoxically a photographer who doesn’t want any photography in the picture. I don’t want anything to remind you it is a photographic image. Of course that’s impossible but that’s my motivation. You want the viewer to believe what is in
the picture? Yes, in the same way as you would believe in a movie. You made a series called Sanctuary that shows cinematic backdrops. I was wandering if it was a way to undermine the illusion of your pictures? Yes. Although I was also interested in the structures themselves. The places themselves were real, and very beautiful I thought. But yes, it’s a way of showing the means of production: the structure behind the structure. Some of your pictures seem cryptic, full of details. Are these details clues to unders- tanding the pictures? Everything in a picture means something. But what it means is not exactly known, even to myself. In my way of making pictures, since everything has clarity, focus and resolution, if it’s in the frame it suggests something. But what it suggests is just that it’s part of a larger all. I have used things over and over again, like glasses of water, pill bottles, towels or blankets… All that means something, but I don’t know how they add up to create one final meaning. You mean these elements have no specific meanings? I have my specific meanings for certain things but I’m not quite sure how it ends up. You spoke about objects. There are also recurring characters such as the naked pregnant woman. Do they mean something specifically? I’m not quite sure exactly what it means, but I like the idea of the body as being a carrier and that pregnancy is sort of a great form of between-things. For me that’s evocative of between two moments, between now and another time. You like the in-between. You spoke about windows, pregnancy… Cars parked with doors open, yellow lights… They are all like in-between moments. Twilight is between day and light.
You like the uncertainty? I like in-between moments generally because it’s open-ended in a way that suggests a mystery. Even if you said you couldn’t interpret all the details, could you help us to decipher The Barn, from Cathedral of the Pines? It is rather elaborate. There is some sense of ritual happening. There is a question whether it is a burial. There is something funerary about it. One of my motifs is things beneath the surface of things. That’s why the floorboards are open. Cathedral of the Pines seems in many aspects related to the place you live now. What would be the next step of your work? We are working on a movie. We have been working on a script, Juliane [Hiam] and I, for two years. It feels like it exists within the world of the pictures. There is a real story that happens. We are working with a team of producers and we’re hoping to shoot it within the next few years. You told me that photography was not the best narrative medium. Would it be easier to tell a story in cinema? It would be harder for me. I think like a photographer. The idea of making a movie is a real challenge to me, a challenge to my way of seeing. But that’s part of the reason to do it.
Ci-dessus / above: « Untitled ». 2004. De la série / from the series « Beneath the Roses ». Digital C-print. 163,2 x 239,4 cm (© Gregory Crewdson. Court. Gagosian) Page gauche / page left: « Untitled ». 1996. De la série / from the series « Fireflies ». Tirage argentique. 34 x 42,9 cm. (© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian). Gelatin silver print
« Untitled ». 2009. De la série / from the series « Sanctuary ». Tirage jet d’encre. 72,4 x 89,5 cm. (© Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian). Pigment print