Sunday, 14 October 2012

Artist talk: Gregory Crewdson

I managed to get along to a talk put on by the IMA (Institute of Modern Art) by artist and photographer Gregory Crewdson. This was a bit of a personal feat as it was my longest excursion away from my baby son. Lucky for me it was also a glorious day so I cycled in to the GOMA for the talk. In preparation for attendance of the talk I did some research into Crewdsons work, including listening to an interview with him on ABC Radio National. I also looked at some images online and recalled watching some 'making of' footage on the 'Genius of Photography' TV series of one of his 'Beneath the Roses' images, his epic series which was 8 years in the making.

This gave me quite a good feel for his work before I attended the lecture. I was quite surprised to arrive at the cinema in the GOMA and find it nearly full (it ended up being totally full by the start and people sitting on the steps!) of what I assumed to be students, photographers and modern art lovers. The talk was organized by the IMA and CCP (Melbourne) in conjunction with Crewdsons first one man show in Australia and New Zealand, titled 'In a lonely place'. The show is currently in Melbourne for the festival there, and includes 3 bodies of his work.

Crewdson spoke for about 50 minutes and then answered questions. I had to leave at that point, but afterwards the film documenting his 'Beneath the roses' series was being shown, I will attempt to see it at some point but it wasn't possible for me to stay away from home any longer. He seemed a bit shy/nervous initially but soon got into it and spoke quite well I thought. He also gave a sideshow starting with some of his earliest work and also some film clips from the documentary.

He said that he thought every photographer had a story to tell and retell in visual form, to attempt to challenge it, redirect it, change the parameters but that the story remained the same. To create a visual image of your obsessions, desires, fears and preoccupations. He started by showing his graduate body of work from his time at Yale in 1986-88, and commented that his core story remained constant since then. It was great to see these early images and feel some of the tension and drama in small scale images that his monumental works are known for now. He is interested in the intersection between life and theatricality, and blurs the distinctions between documentary and cinematic photography,  and also between film and photography. He is a storyteller who uses a medium to tell a story (photography) but it is a limited medium (unlike literature or film) as there is only a single moment - he uses this to find strength and narrative... A mystery.

Gregory Crewdson. Taken from for personal study purposes

He showed early images shot in the same small towns where he still creates his images today, and uses colour and light to tell a story. He also commented on the voyeuristic aspect of his images (photographing strangers in the private of their homes and even bedrooms)... E.g. children watching TV seemingly oblivious to him, woman lying on the floor of her lounge room. A key image was one looking out through the window of a suburban home into a baseball field next door - the artificial light from the field transforming the vernacular to a place of mystery and beauty. He commented on how he often uses the window as a framing device - a physical barrier between the inside and outside and the tension associated with this (an interesting idea - I wonder which other artists do this?).

After this piece of work he was stuck with what to do next (time of personal tumult) and had a holiday where he built piles of dirt in the backyard (hundreds of them), and photographed them (but never developed the film) ... Described it as an artists obsession that he needed to follow,and to the maker it makes sense, but in the process it distances him from family and friends. He became more interested in the blurring of lines between the internal and external, normal and paranormal, and did a series of "natural wonder" studio miniatures, which gradually became more hallucinatory and focused on death and morbidity (not a happy time in his life!)

The next series of work was "hover", scenes of small town suburban life from an elevated position, eg. Woman planting roses down the street, man turfing over a road (with cop in background who Crewdson called!), a perfect circle of mulch on a lawn... That one had a good story - he found the perfect backyard, but had to leave a note explaining what he wanted to do to the owners backyard, and left his number. The owner called back and said 'do what you have to do' perhaps a good motto for all artists!

Next his work was more involving light as a narrative code ... the (well-known) project entitled "Twilight". He started using light in a more choreographed way, and used a soundstage and built sets for his interior work. This allowed much more control over all aspects of the image. "Beneath the Roses" continued this use of light and was equivalent in scale to making a small film. The photos are more psychological and open-ended, and he is once again interested in the moment between before and after (e.g. car doors often open), and regular use of doorways as framing devices. He also composites his negatives (combining multiple images together) to create the final image.

Some behind-the-scenes shots (and video) were shown which gave a sense of the scale of the production, and the detail to which Crewdson directs everything. The actors are told to make small movements, the fire crews spray down the street, lights get turned on and off, a house is set on fire (!) and everything is sketched out in detail beforehand (i.e. hand drawings of the final scene). Yet he says there is always something that happens by chance and that is part of the mystery of the work. As with Cartier-Bresson, there is a 'moment' when it all comes together - though I guess through the compositing of images there must be multiple 'moment's' that are combined together in post-processing.

Influences are Joel Sternfield and Stephen Shore (among others).

He has an obsession to create a 'perfect world', but this is not possible, and there is an inability to do so ... this creates a tension that is seen in the final images.

After attending this lecture I feel I have a much better understanding of Crewdson's work in particular, but also of how an artist works (and some insight into how he thinks). It was great hearing him discuss some of the influences on his images (for example the framing devices and interactions between different light sources). I think the tension in his images is really exciting and interesting, and it's certainly impressive to see his use of light and the enormity of scale. I feel like at this point in my studies I'm really beginning to think more like an 'artist' than I ever have before. Before I went along to the talk I was thinking about what it means to be a photographer (Crewdson doesn't actually push the shutter button), and I certainly come to no conclusion, but am thinking more about the making of art and photography in particular, in all it's forms (camera, pinhole, film, digital, scanner, phone!), and how 'everyone is a photographer' these days (Instagram/facebook etc.) and the implications on photography as art. It's not a simple thought, but I feel like just by thinking it I am moving forward with developing my own vision and practice. More on this to come as I digest my thoughts (and continue my reading).


Artworks (2011), ABC radio national (online), Available from: [Accessed 11 October 2012]

Books and Arts Daily (2012), ABC radio national (online), Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2012]

Centre for Creative Photography (online), Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2012]

Institute of Modern Art (online), Available from:

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