March 4, 2013

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters

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Gregory Crewdon: Brief Encounters is an inspiring documentary film by Ben Shapiro on the life and work of acclaimed contemporary American photographer and Yale faculty member, Gregory Crewdson. The title of the film is taken from a theater sign of the very last photograph in a long series called “Beneath the Roses,” which features photographs of life in small towns in upstate New York and other locations in New England. Crewdson is known for his large, complex, theatrical and staged photographs of small-town life, usually portraying ordinary people and marginal characters.

Crewdson grew up in Brooklyn as the son of a psychiatrist whose practice was in the basement of the family townhouse. As a child, Crewdson was intrigued by the mystery of what was happening in that basement, and he has continued to explore an enigmatic understanding of everyday life in his mature work. He was also inspired by an exhibition of the photographs of Diane Arbus whose unsettling portraits of misfits in ordinary life had a powerful effect on him at a young age. From her art, he realized that photography is not simply a documentary medium; it can also be psychologically complex and indeterminate in its narrative.

After some academic difficulties in college, Crewdson took up photography in earnest, and has now become a critically acclaimed photographer, represented by major galleries and featured in museum exhibitions. The Herbert F. Johnson Museum is currently exhibiting one of the photographs in his “Beneath the Roses” series.

Each photograph in “Beneath the Roses” is a culmination of Crewdson’s lengthy production process. First, Crewdson explores various small town streets for a setting. However, some of his photographs are not realized in an actual location, but in entire houses and rooms carefully reconstructed with controlled stage design. Each photograph requires a full-scale production team similar to a small film crew. The successful realization of each photograph depends on cranes and lifts, massive lighting rigs and a careful search for proper clothing, furniture and other props.

In the film, Crewdson comes across as an easy-going person, but it is clear that he is obsessive about getting every detail right. In his outdoor photos, he goes as far as having a pickup truck release fog and mist before taking a photo at dusk, simply to capture the right environmental quality of light.

Every photograph depicts “ordinary” people performing everyday tasks. These chosen “actors” are not idealized models, but ordinary locals with sagging bodies, bad teeth and blotchy skin. A make-up team has to dress and prepare each actor before he or she assumes a still pose. Then Crewdson’s team takes about 50 large format photographs of the same scene, with minor variations in lighting, exposure and actors’ poses. Later, he works with a post production team to digitally combine the best parts of his takes and construct a final, large-scale photo.

Crewdson achieves an aesthetic in his resulting photos that is uncanny and disturbing. Each feels very familiar.  They appear to be ordinary views of unremarkable individuals in a small town, but because he controls the lighting and the placement of actors and props very carefully, it somehow simultaneously looks like an artifice — a frozen staging of a living narrative. Because the photographs are printed on very large pages, one cannot help but notice every detail in each photo — peeling wallpaper, grimy windows and the alienated looks on the faces of the actors. The photographs are of ordinary scenes, but their artifice and transformative light also provide a feeling of grace. “For that instant, my life makes sense,” Crewdson noted with a wry sense of humor.

Crewdson’s careful construction of his photographs renders them closer to paintings than documentary photographs. As much as his work was affected by other photogrophers such as Diane Arbus, Crewdson is equally inspired by Hollywood staged theatricality. For one photo, Crewdson went as far as recreating the entire bathroom from Psycho. This layering of art, historical and cinematic references adds complexity to Crewdson’s photos and makes them more akin, if anything, to abstraction. If you are looking to be creatively inspired, don’t miss Brief Encounters.

Brief Encounters will be shown on campus on March 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the Schwartz Center.

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Original Author: Rehan Dadi