Arts & Culture

Famed photographer gives snapshot of career

Crewdson, known for images of small town America, discussed staged studio technique

By
Contributing Writer
Friday, November 22, 2013

Gregory Crewdson, a photographer whose work has been widely exhibited in top art museums, presented some of his artistic creations in a talk Wednesday.

Crewdson spoke to a sold-out Martinos Auditorium in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts as part of an ongoing lecture series by the Student Creative Arts Council.

After an introduction by History of Art and Architecture Professor Douglas Nickel, Crewdson presented a slideshow of photographs and videos documenting his work throughout the years.

The slides began with photographs from his thesis show at Yale, where he received an MFA.

“I was very much preoccupied with very similar concerns that I still work with today,” Crewdson said. He took the photographs in small towns using specific colors and lighting to tell a story that “hovers between documentary picture-making and cinematic effect,” he added.

Next, he showed his series “Natural Wonder,” a compilation of photographs of dioramas in a studio. This body of work “deals with the interrelationship between nature and domesticity,” Crewdson said, displaying images of various birds and bugs in front of suburban homes.

The series “became increasingly hyperbolic and fantastical, increasingly involved with death and decay,” Crewdson said, emphasizing his point with images of a seagull drinking polluted water and a decaying leg surrounded by thorny vines and worms.

After finishing “Natural Wonder,” “I decided to move out of New York and make a series of pictures returning back to a small town,” Crewdson said. This second series, “Hover,” consists of black-and-white photographs taken from the elevated perspective of a crane. Its subjects include a woman planting flowers along a road and a man using sod to close his street, which Crewdson noted was intended to show the man’s desire to connect with his neighbors.

Crewdson also showed a small series of photographs focusing on fireflies. “I always thought the light of fireflies was so beautiful, since it’s a mating call. I love the idea of light as desire, of light as a narrative code,” Crewdson said, adding that he initially disliked the pictures but was able to appreciate them 15 years later.

“I realized they were exactly right and beautiful in all their flaws. They were elemental, simple,” Crewdson said.

After completing “Hover,” Crewdson said, he realized he “wanted to return to color but use lighting in a more articulate way.”

This desire led to his next series, “Twilight,” which uses artificial lighting and the light of a setting sun “to create a psychological effect,” Crewdson said. He was interested in exploring the “idea of being between here and there, day and night,” he added.

Crewdson said he began taking interior photographs on a soundstage for “Twilight,” because he wanted “more control in terms of lighting and the color of the wallpaper — every detail.”

The use of a soundstage allowed Crewdson to “start from nothing” and create pictures directly from his imagination, he said, adding that he looks to movies as references when creating the scenes.

At the event, Crewdson next exhibited “Beneath the Roses.” It was the largest-scale production Crewdson had ever done, he said, but the narrative moments of the pictures became smaller despite the growth in production.

“The pictures revolved around very small details,” Crewdson said.

He frequently used cars with open doors in the series to highlight the central themes of “rootlessness” and travel, he said.

Crewdson also presented behind-the-scenes shots of his lighting, rain machines, soundstage and picture concepts, as well as documentary footage showing how the pictures were set up.

He ended the lecture displaying recent black-and-white photographs of empty movie lots in Rome, calling this final series “a love letter to documentary photography.”

Crewdson also discussed his creative process and motivation with the audience.

“I’m interested in trying to find uncanny sensations, in looking into the familiar or ordinary and finding something that’s unexpectedly wondrous or terrifying,” Crewdson said, adding that his central interest is “an exploration of my own psychological anxieties and fears.”

Separation from his subjects is also important to Crewdson. “The act of making a picture is an act of separating yourself from your surroundings, an idea that fascinates my work,” Crewdson said. “It’s the feeling of being there but not there — of peering in on a world you feel alienated from.”

“In all of these domestic spaces, I never have any real intimate contact with the subjects,” he added. “It’s like a stage set.”

The art of Crewdson’s photographs comes “from the collision (of) the need to make a perfect world and the impossibility of doing so,” he said. “I’m thankful for the moment when the picture comes together, when everything becomes silent and still.”

Olivia Fialkow ’14, an organizer of the event, said she and the rest of the Student Creative Arts Council — including Clara Zevi ’15, who largely spearheaded the lecture’s organization — felt “incredibly proud to have him here at Brown” and lauded his “incredibly relevant” work as representative of  “a more contemporary vision” than other artists the Council has brought to campus.

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