Acclaimed photographer Gregory Crewdson ART ’88, who directs the graduate program in photography at the School of Art, met poet and theorist Richard Deming, Senior Lecturer in English and Director of Creative Writing, when they co-planned a visit to Yale by the photographer Thomas Struth last spring. The two professors got together one Wednesday afternoon for a conversation at the Study on Chapel Street.
On finding and keeping
C: Do you envision a time when you’re not teaching?
D: No. Because it’s so lonely otherwise.
C: I think the big secret is that most of us who are artists or writers, one of the main reasons we teach is to learn something. And I’ve always said it’s important to remain connected to that next generation of artists, because they think about things very differently than we do, and they’ve been influenced in ways that we could never have. It’s a way of remaining relevant. When you get older you tend to narrow your vision — and I live in a church in Great Barrington, I live a pretty cloistered life, so this is an opportunity to open up in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise. I don’t do that through shows or talking to other artists. Once in a while you’ll be looking at something that a student made, maybe in a Crit — this has happened me so many times actually — and you’re like, oh yeah, okay, right. I’ll steal that.
D: Fair enough!
C: It goes both ways.
D: The students are hungry and lit up and they want to engage and be charged. For me, it’s about the possibilities of intensity in a public space. They’re so rare, but you get some taste of that in a classroom.
C: I am friends with a lot of artists of my generation — we never talk about anything of real significance in terms of making art. It’s all, like, oh, did you hear that person left this gallery, or, that person went for that much [in] auction. When I’m in the Crit room, it’s the only time I talk about what pictures mean.
C: I strongly feel that you are defined as an artist in your early 20s. That’s when you inherit your influences and your loves and hates, and the artist that haunts you, and that’s when you carve out your place in the world, your sensibility, and that doesn’t really change. That’s sort of sad in a way, but it’s true. I was a graduate student here at Yale between ‘86 and ’88 — it was a very defining time for me. The program here was traditional in terms of the championing of the documentary approach to photography, but at the same time I was going to New York and looking at Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. All those diverse and conflicted influences became my field, to try to work out what I was attempting to do. I still carry that with me.
D: Do you also have an awareness of or anxiety about tradition? This is something I am wrestling with, with the proliferation of MFA programs in creative writing in which there’s more attention on people’s peers and their own work — they lose that sense of this tradition, of the sense that you’re also in conversation with what came before. Not simply trying to transmit the greats, but at the same time also not being stuck in your moment.
C: I think it’s a complicated dance. We inherit all these traditions and conventions and are obviously doomed to repeat them, but the challenge is to just change it one degree. Somehow through your own personal story or your own obsession, if you manage to take that stuff and change it by one degree, that’s all you can be expected to do. And then an artist will come and take that thing and change it one degree again. I think the movements, the radical movements, are very small.
On a daily swim and Daily Themes
C: I’m the most routine person there is. My life is best when it’s completely regimented. I have coffee at the same place; I’m a religious swimmer so I swim every single day. I don’t make a distinction between my life and my art. Making the same dinner every night is part of my artwork. And I’m unlike you in that the time that I’m actually making pictures is very limited — I’d say a couple times a year, to get a whole production going. So there’s a lot of — not downtime — but there’s a lot of time that you’re not making pictures. I’ve often said that my life is divided between pre-production, production — when I’m making pictures, for a short period of time — and post-production. That’s a very different way of working than a writer who’ll write every day or a painter who’ll go to their studio and paint every day.
D: There are periods where I have to write a certain amount every day to produce, to get something in for a deadline, and then for me it’s a word count. What I learned in music school is that not only do you practice every day but you have to practice at the same time, because your muscles know, better than you, that you’re about to start doing that, and when you hit that room you’re more likely to be in the mode to do it. And then fortune favors the prepared mind — if the conditions are right, that stuff might come. And it might not—and that’s the thing, too, about doing it every day, you get used to the fact that not every day is going to be a good day. Although I know nothing about baseball, I know that .500 is an amazing average and you’re only hitting half the time.
C: I’ve been very clearly shaped by movies, but now I’m in this weird thing where my pictures are influencing movies. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the idea of me making a movie, which I never say no and I never say yes.
D: That would be interesting.
C: It’s seductive, but I don’t think in terms of moving images, so it would be hard for me. But there are conversations happening. I don’t think I’ll ever make a movie … I’ll say no at the last minute.
D: This happened last fall and the fall before: I’m at the Union League with a visiting writer and some colleagues, and I’m sitting in the window and it’s late fall and I look out —
C: Drinking martinis…
D: — and there’s a streetlight on Chapel, and there’s the leaves, and I think — two years in a row, it’s happened — this looks like one of Gregory’s photographs. Which is interesting because people talk about your work’s engagement with film, which is absolutely [important to me], but what was interesting to me was that, nope, his work has shaped not my sense of film but my sense of the real world. Which is I think what great art does, it gives you a way of seeing the world anew.