Sense of Place A Conver­sa­tion with Gre­go­ry Crewd­son

Art Press - - L’IN­TER­VIEW -

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

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