Gregory Crewdson: Photographer, Swimmer, In Search of Lost Time

Photo by Gregory Crewdson.

Through constructing elaborate sets, as in films, Gregory Crewdson ART ’88 photographs scenes of mourning and melancholy. Despite, or perhaps because of, his use of sublime twilight, Crewdson captures the surreal just below the suburban surface. Crewdson speaks about David Lynch as one of his major influences. And one can feel a lot like Jeffrey Beaumont, Blue Velvet’s weirdbeat hero, when looking at Crewdson’s images of the strange but all too familiar — “I’m seeing something that was always hidden. I’m in the middle of a mystery. And it’s all secret.”

Q: How do you build narrative into a single image without having a before or after?

A: Photography has a different relation to narrative than other narrative forms — say, film or literature — in that it is a frozen moment in time. So any story that a photograph can tell is, by definition, a limited one, but I think that’s what draws me to photography; that the story never completely resolves itself. That it always remains a kind of mystery. When I’m making my pictures, I really never think about what happens before or after. I really just think about a single image and try to make a picture as beautiful and mysterious as I can. And I think one of the central ways that I attempt to do this is through light — that is to try to tell a story through light, to try to create meaning through light.

Q: In interviews you talk about this magic hour of twilight as a sort of perfect time. Rick Moody’s essay describes your dusk as the “poetry of retrospection.” I’m wondering if the story of how light functions in your work — and the search for light — is somehow related to memory.

A: One thing I’m always so tempted to do is to try to find what I would call an uncanny sensation. And that is this sense that I’m trying to find the intersection between the familiar and the strange. So taking ordinary life and things that feel ordinary and familiar and transforming them through light and color to make them feel mysterious, or even terrifying, in a certain way. Or unsettling.

The way Freud described the uncanny is that sense of looking into the familiar and then having that unexpected sense of terror. Which he would argue is related to some repressed memory of sort. For me, I don’t know how much my work deals as literally with the history of my own memory, but I certainly want the viewer to have a kind of connection to a memory of the past, or something. But I think all photographs do that. I think all photographs have a link to the past. That’s the nature of what pictures are.

Q: Why photos? Could you see yourself making a pure image through painting, if you had existed in a pre-technological era?

A: No, I don’t. Although my work is very connected to film or painting or other things, I think, in the end, my pictures are very photographic. They feel linked to a very photographic form in terms of light and framing and focus. They play off the history and tradition of photography. And of course all photographs have this strange relationship to truth and reality that I’m interested in, you know. All photographs, on one level or another, are documents. They are evidence in a way. And I like that about pictures.

Q: With regards to this history, what photographers do you see yourself citing in your work?

A: My pictures definitely relate to a long history of photographs. You could almost say that my pictures are in a way ‘pictures of pictures’ in a certain sense, you know. That part of my experience has been mediated through the tradition of the medium. So I always have a deep connection to Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, William Eggleston, Jeff Wall. A number of artists. And painters, and writers, and filmmakers. I think photography is the currency of our culture in a certain way. How we relate to photographs can feel very effortless.

Q: I was wondering if music and music videos — and how they too evoke uncanny moods without explicit narrative — also influence your work?

A: Sure, that’s one of the reasons I organized the music panel [with David Byrne and James Murphy at the YUAG] yesterday because there’s a great intersection between art and music generally. I feel that personally I’ve been very influenced by music and video and art. Even before I was a photographer I was in a band when I was a teenager called the Speedies. We had our moment. We had a single called “Let Me Take Your Foto.” (You can google it). It was one of the first videos on MTV.

Q: Going back to the idea of film, you’ve cited Night of the Hunter (1955) as influential. That connection really struck me for how the movie feels so wrong because of how right the way light is used.

A: For me, what I love is any work of art that transforms or transports you into another world. That, as you say, it’s all wrong but right. And when you’re in a convincing world — whether it’s a painting or movie or photograph — and you just enter it willingly, you become sort of a participant in that world in a certain way. I always responded to Night of the Hunter because it’s absolutely stunningly beautiful and hypnotic how you enter into a children’s view of a world. That’s both beautiful and terrifying in some sense.

Q: When you enter the world of your photos, how do you prepare before going on set?

A: Yeah, well you know I work with a lot of people to make my pictures and I think that can be really stressful and intense work on location. And there’s always sort of things that can go wrong so there’s always a level of anxiety making my pictures. But when it all comes together and the light becomes exactly right, and there’s this perfect balance between the ambient light of the sun and the artificial lighting, all of that stuff recedes. All of that preparation, all of the anxiety, all the complications recede, and what you’re left with is this sort of calm and stillness. And that’s why I make pictures. It’s that. It’s a search for that sense of order … and stillness.

Q: Is that magic light related to the passing of time or the manipulation of space? Are they the same thing?

A: For me, it’s none of those. It’s that time ceases in a certain way. I’ve said many times before that I’m always in my pictures searching for the perfect world, I think, and also about the impossibility of doing so. So those two things come together, but, for a moment, there’s this beautiful event that occurs almost outside of time.

Q: But in that perfect moment, the subjects are struggling. Under the weight of that … perfection? Our misguided perception?

A: For me, there’s clearly always an underlying sadness in my photographs. Or loneliness, you could even say. I think my pictures are about attempts to find connection — the search for meaning. And again, the search for meaning through light, you could say.

Q: So the subjects are going through something similar to your own search?

A: Oh yeah, that’s definitely the autobiographical part. The subjects are in a certain way definitely surrogates for my own sense of estrangement, you could say. Which I think all photographers have in a different way. There’s a loneliness to the medium.

Q: To ask you back the question you asked James Murphy and David Byrne yesterday about their songwriting process, what’s the process you go through for making an image?

A: I usually drive around location scouting and through that process I’ll come across something I feel could occupy one of my pictures and through that an image will just come up in my mind. And then, I’ll also do a lot of swimming and think about an image while I’m swimming. Once I’m pretty clear on it, then I start bringing in my assistant, and my location manager, and my Director of Photography, and then we’ll start working out the logistics of the picture. The lighting and whatever else needs to happen. And months later, we’ll make the picture. And the picture will end up becoming something else than what I originally imagined it to be.

Q: Does the final product ever match up with that first image in your head?

A: If it matches up then it sort of fails because art in the end has to be about mystery and you have to be surprised about what you make. So something unexpected has to happen.

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