Genres – Tableaux – Gregory Crewdson

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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.

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