Monthly Archives: December 2013

Genres – Tableaux – Gregory Crewdson


The module notes ask me to do some research on Gregory Crewdson’s work and reflect on how it relates to ‘… film and/or art’.  The research has taken me into five or six photography books from my shelves; two NY Times articles from the internet; a written interview from Aperture website; three video interviews from YouTube and Vimeo; plus online viewing of several images from ‘Twilight’, ‘Between the Roses’, ‘Sanctuary’ and some earlier works.  So, where has that led me regarding the ‘film and/or art’ relationship?

There are unmistakable areas in which one can make direct references between Crewdson’s images and film.

  • Production process is the most obvious.  He employs a significant team of staff to produce the works, including Art Director, Casting Director, Location Manager, even camera operator, whilst taking an overall directorial role himself (that does not involve actually handling the camera).  It might, therefore, be argued that producing a Crewdson photographic image is more akin to making a movie than taking a photograph.  And that might be extended into post-production, with many ‘takes’ being combined, through digital processing, into a final version of the image.
  • Comparisons are also made in the narrative context; a suggestion that his work resembles science fiction or horror movies; that he almost seems to collapse the entire story of the movie into a single image.
  • Which leads to, or is maybe directly related to, the resemblance to film stills.  I have recently looked at film stills in the context of John Stezaker’s work – here – and it becomes clear that this type of image is not quite what it ‘says on the tin’.  Far from being ‘still’ frames from the film, they are carefully staged and posed images, shot with a still camera on the film set, intended to ‘inform’ the viewer of a sense of the film, its narrative, and its genre.  As such, Stezaker suggests they have something in common with paintings.  Crewdson’s images have all those characteristics – posed, still, somewhat ‘unnatural’ – and so do indeed resemble ‘stills’ (though that might also relate them to paintings – see below).
  • Whilst my research hasn’t turned up any information about Crewdson’s funding of his work, the level of planning/production, the large crew, etc all suggest a significant budget, which must be pre-funded in some way – backers, pre-purchase of the limited edition prints, or whatever.  This commercial aspect will, one might assume, have something in common with the process of movie-making.

Turning to the relationship between Crewdson’s work and ‘art’, it is tempting to get into the debate over ‘what is art?’ and to question why ‘film’ is being differentiated from ‘art’.  Since that isn’t, I’m sure, the point of this piece of research, I’ll work on the basis that ‘art’, in this case, is probably referring to the commonly-used, narrower definition of painting, drawing and the ‘traditional’ visual arts.

  • Several of my references have made a comparison between Crewdson’s work and that of painter Edward Hopper; and Crewdson himself acknowledges the influence.  One can make direct, ‘physical’ comparisons – looking through windows; ambiguous scenes in suburban USA; the ‘gaze’ of the figures, often staring off-frame, we know not whence – but perhaps the sense that the images are exploring some psychological state of mind is an even stronger axis of similarity.  That state is usually more dramatic in Crewdson’s case – relating, no doubt, to the oft-quoted, and acknowledged, influence of his father’s psychoanalyst profession, with consulting room in the basement of the family home.
  • In the context of the identified genre of ‘tableaux’, these are carefully constructed and composed images, with high levels of attention to detail (books on tables, pictures on walls, reflections in mirrors), often details that have significance in suggesting narrative – all factors that resemble the construct of traditional paintings.  I am reminded of reading Michael Fried’s ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ (Yale, 2008), in which there is a detailed examination of Jeff Wall’s constructed photographic images and their relationship with classical painting.
  • Even the production process mentioned above, whilst most closely resembling film production in the literal sense, could also have much in common with the ‘studio-produced’ work of a Leonardo da Vinci or Anish Kapoor – to name two disparate artists who were/are certainly not ‘hands-on’ but ‘team-based’ in their output.
  • And Crewdson’s work is certainly targeted at the ‘art’ market.  The investment of time and money in creating images which, printed very large in editions of six, sell for tens of thousands of dollars.  He makes his work as ‘art’ in that sense.

In summary, whilst Crewdson’s images reference ‘film’ in a number of ways, they are apparently created for what one might term ‘wall-based’ display, with some very significant and serious aesthetic intent and an intensity of development process, placing them firmly in the ‘art’ world.  They resemble film stills; they resemble paintings; they are photographic images; but, in the end, they are principally his creations, his expressions, his chosen unique contributions.  They are complex, ambiguous, and thought-provoking; but at the same time, perhaps, they are highly-produced and highly expensive artefacts.  Does artifice overtake meaning?  Or does Crewdson simply push the boundaries of what level of production values might meaningfully be brought to bear in the creation of photographic art?  Those questions might also seem to hover somewhere in and around the distinction between modernism and post-modernism in photography.

Part One – Genre

Groucho Marx (1 of 1)

I have always tended towards what one might describe as the ‘Marxist’ view of categorisation – Groucho, that is of course, not Karl – the ‘not wanting to join any club that would have me as a member’ approach. My problems with genres in Photography have been a) that it seems you have no sooner defined one than you find exceptions and contradictions; and b) that if you choose to ‘join’ a category, you become defined, and therefore restricted, by its ‘boundaries’. That this may have stemmed from some muddled thinking, I’m prepared to admit, but there has also been an element of suspicion that such ordering and defining of photographic images – even photographers – has stemmed from academic or archival convenience rather than ‘real’ value. Confession over, we move on to take a more serious view, in the context of the first section of ‘Body of Work’.

The course notes use a quotation from David Bate’s ‘Photography: The Key Concepts’ to summarise genre in Photography. I’ll repeat it:

“… a genre in photography – portraiture, landscape, still life, documentary, etc, – creates an expectation for the meanings to be derived from that type of photograph.” (Page 3)

Bate acknowledges that the notion of genre has been take up more frequently in film theory than in photography study, and also that photography has tended to be classified according to more traditional genres inherited from the field of painting – the first three listed in the quote, for example – but he also notes that:

Genres are processes which evolve and develop or mutate into hybrids.” (Page 4)

So he sees ‘Documentary’ as almost certainly a “… specific invention of photography.” The key seems to be that in theoretical study, the idea of genres enables all those involved – photographer, viewer, student, critic, or whatever – to share expectations and meanings. Crucially, in the context of one of my concerns expressed above, Liz Wells, in Chapter Six of ‘Photography: A Critical Introduction’, says that:

“… genres are defined not by uniformity, but by clusters of characteristic themes, formal and aesthetic concerns, and ideological preoccupations.” and “… are revitalised through aesthetic experimentation and … new issues ...” (Page 310)

It seems that genres are, perhaps, more fluid than I might have thought and that it is acceptable for them to evolve in line with contemporary issues and new ways of working.

Bate, in the rest of his book, stays with the traditional classifications – as listed above – though he does certainly look at the way photography has, at times, mutated and transformed them. Refreshingly, Part One of the ‘Body of Work’ module comes up with a different set of genres – suggesting a kind of matrix into which the traditional genres might be used. The genres looked at here are – Tableaux; Personal journeys and fictional autobiography; The archive; Psychogeography; Conceptual photography; and the ‘catch all’ Genre hopping. Some of these are familiar and some are new, but I do certainly see the potential for some refreshment of thinking in this approach. I can see how an exploration of some of these in my own work will potentially set me off on different tracks and or provide direction for ideas that are already around.

There is a reference in the notes to thinking with photography as opposed to thinking about photography. I felt a little uncertain about that when I first read it. I have sometimes been concerned that, despite studying a visual art, I perhaps think literally rather than visually, and that learning to do the latter could be difficult. I still feel a bit that way – but in reading the Wells’ chapter mentioned above, I came across a quote from Jeff Wall, in a section where Wells uses Landscape as a case study for looking at genre. She quotes Wall as saying “I make landscapes … to work out for myself what the kind of picture (or photograph) we call ‘landscape’ is. This permits me also to recognize the other kinds of picture with which it has necessary connections, or the other genres that a landscape might conceal within itself.” This, I suspect, is thinking with photography, and it encourages me to go out and explore some or all of the genres in the module with my own image-making.

First Tutor Contact & Some Initial Thoughts

Xmas Card 2013

More about this image later!!

I have read through the course notes twice now and, earlier in the week, had a good first conversation with Clive, my tutor. (That is not him in the illustration – to avoid any possible confusion.) As I said in the previous post, it seems essential to maintain an open mind at this stage as to where this major project will travel – and certainly about its destination. I do, as I emerge from my Level Two studies, have some broad ideas as to the general domain.

• I am keen to explore and exploit the potential of digital photographic image-making. And I expect to regard all aspects of digital photographic creativity as ‘at my disposal’ in seeking to create meaning.
• I will want – to an extent – to continue with the ‘studio-based still life’ work on which I focused towards the end of my last Level Two course.
• I can see more potential for exploration of ‘constructed’ images, and the bringing together of material from diverse sources to construct meaning in images.
• But, at the same time, I am concerned that I should not lock myself into an entirely ‘studio-bound’ approach.

I have discussed these thoughts with Clive and he is supportive of those ideas as very broad parameters within which to start out, but also stresses the ‘open mind’ approach. So we have agreed that I will set about taking some photographs/creating some images that interest me, over the next couple of months and then share a selection with him. It has also occurred to me, following the conversation, that, since the first part of the module explores ‘Genre’, I might use some of the defined genres as the starting point for some photographic exploration of my own. (I also see the digital focus as a broadly useful direction for ‘Contextual Studies’ when I get fully under way with that module – exploring the ways in which photography theory & visual cultural thinking in relation to photography has responded to the development of digital image-making and image-sharing, for example.)

Mentioning ‘Contextual Studies’ leads into one ‘procedural’ question that I have put to Clive and subsequently raised with OCA. For reasons that are understandable, there is a policy that, when an OCA student is undertaking more than one module at the same time, they should keep their studies identifiably separate and not allow overlapping of material. The Level Three Photography Handbook that came with the course notes makes more or less that point. However, since the three modules are inextricably linked, that seems like a principle that would be difficult to apply rigidly. ‘Contextual Studies’, I believe, is intended to explore the context in which ‘Body of Work’ is produced. So it would seem very odd, even counter-productive, to not refer to ‘Contextual Studies’ material in this Learning Log. I have asked the question.

And so to the illustration at the top of this post. It is primarily here to supply a bit of visual interest in an otherwise ‘dry’ opening early post and is actually my design for a Christmas card that my wife and I will be sending this year. However, it does illustrate a bit about where my image-making stands at this stage and has some value in the context of my bullet points about direction. It is constructed from photographs of illustrations from second hand books (resized and processed for this context); a photograph that I took locally of a building in Holmfirth; a miniature festive wreath and miniature parcel created by my wife; and a tiny model of a teddy bear. The photographs have been printed and cut, as necessary, with a craft knife, and the ‘set’ was assembled and lit in ‘studio-style’ to create this effect. Some subsequent digital processing created the warm light for the internal scene and added the number over the door, as well as preparing the image for print. It is a bit of fun, naturally, but I am genuinely interested in the multiple layers of meaning that can be created through this type of activity – and I would also acknowledge some influence from Abelardo Morell, whose work I have looked at and enjoyed in the last few weeks –