Nov 022010

Gregory Crewdson

G A G O S I A N  G A L L E R Y

What if you discovered an

abandoned city and had four

months to photograph its

streets?  An American artist

had a chance to do just this. But

what he found was a city that

was never real.

Sanctuary: A new body of work from artist Gregory Crewdson, shot in location in Cinecitta.


For those of you who are not familiar with Gregory Crewdson, he is a large format photographer who makes film stills to movies you’ve never seen.  His images have production budgets larger than most independent films.  The art world often criticizes him for being too technical, while the photography world thinks his pieces are “not such a big deal” to quote one critic.  Defining him as an artist, photographer, or educator (he is the head of Yale’s photography department) is challenging, but regardless of who he is, the work can be interesting.  In this series he returns to black and white film which he has not exhibited since being a graduate student.  While the ideas behind “Sanctuary” are more reserved than his other series, he continues to place reality uncomfortably close to fantasy until we can no longer tell the difference.

The texture of the images jumps out because it was shot on 8×10 sheet film. Crewdson says that he shoots between 20-40 sheets to achieve 1 final image.

No White, No Black

The histogram from one of these photos would read like a dream.  Impossible to understand on a computer screen, the gradations from nearly black to almost white are astounding.  A single image has more shades of grey than I thought existed.  Leave it to movie lighting and an 8×10 camera to render all discussion on digital sensors moot.  Sheet film still reigns supreme in terms of detail.  It’s unclear how many stops of dynamic range exist in one photo, but whatever the number is, the effect of tones makes most images look like a Judy Bloom book sitting next to Moby Dick.  The White Whale does not even consider the teen drama to be in the same conversation.

The main reason why these pictures are so technically precise is to draw attention to “why” they were made rather than “how” they were made.  Crewdson’s earlier work (pre-Twilight series) was colorful but clunky.  He is one of those artists that needed to refine the technical parts of the picture in order to call attention to the ideas embedded in the work.  Some photographers, God bless them, can get away with technically awful work and still make meaningful pictures.  They are fortunate.  Some of us, Crewdson included, need to work a little bit harder.  In his case, much harder, bigger budget, and more time consuming than even Ansel Adams and his mountaineering efforts in the Sierra Nevada.

Some of the images do not show their scaffolding supports. By focusing on one side of the movie sets, we are able to suspend our belief, picturing what Rome might have looked like 1,500 years ago.

Travel Pictures

Wouldn’t it be great to travel to a place that did not have a single fanny-packed tourist walking through the frame?  In interviews, Crewdson is very clear about not wanting to portray reality.  Yet as much as he insists on these being fabrications, they touch a very real chord for the traveling photographer.  There are scenes with perfect light and people who look like they were put on earth to be a part of your picture, the only trouble is this does not happen 99% of the time.  Most of the time we wander the streets in hopes of a scene lining up as perfectly as these images.  In reality, the street does not always face the sunrise and there are no assistants providing bounce light in the shadows.  Life is very different from art in this instance.  But even with the endlessly perfect lighting of Crewdson, it is interesting to see a fully realized image that captures what a camera does and what a city could look like when proper conditions align.

Knowing Crewdson’s work, as a street photographer, is a little bit like a boxer knowing physics.  The theory is useful, but reality can be a crushing reminder; we must be willing to improvise.  If not, the results are unforgiving.  Opportunities for success are limited, but with a trained eye, they are possible.  And the added element of chance always works in the street photographer’s favor, because absurd things happen all the time.

One part scaffolding, one part building, one part imagination.

Format Wars

There is a real tone of hostility when people are defending their cameras and formats.  By some standards a rangefinder is a foolish solution to photography, while for others it is a way of life.  For all of us it is a choice and one that is reflected in the images we bring home.  With a crew on hand and a six figure production budget, I would love to try large format photography in the streets of cities around the world.  The hustle of people who could care less about photography, let alone art, makes street photography a fun challenge.

Crewdson has taken a less risky approach by avoiding the crowds all together.  These images were taken within the fences of Cinecitta, a small province of dilapidated movie sets outside of Rome.  Avoiding the hazards of city traffic, he is able to explore the endless variations of how light can tell a story.

The sentimental side of me really enjoys how Crewdson decided to create his own version of Rome. More often than not, the interesting part is not the truth that an image conveys, but the twist it puts on reality.

Where It Matters

Critics will have their gripes about this show and they will be justified.  But there is an undercurrent to these surreal scenes that is greatly appreciated.  In all the interviews and talks I have seen of Gregory Crewdson, he never talks about having fun.  Maybe it is a topic too trite for the art world, or maybe he is actually suffering (though I doubt it).  His normal topics are about the fact and fiction or unfinished story lines.  But I see an unintended consequence of the “Sanctuary.”  These pictures look to me, like an artist who is having fun.  He is working within his means, in an ideal location, to produce pieces that he probably liked doing.

The reasons we pick up a camera vary as much as our hairstyles.  Photography may be a job, an aspiration, or just an expensive hobby.  Its meaning will change over time, but at some point it was a joy.  It’s refreshing to see an artist, who sells prints for over $100,000, do a project that looks like it was as fun as his college years.  While I may be miles off with this interpretation, the great thing about art is, we each see it differently.  For this show, on this day, there is a level of enjoyment that reminds me of how exciting it can be to search for pictures.  Whether we are in a new country, a studio, or right at home our eyes are constantly scanning for the next image to unfold.

To read more about Gregory Crewdson:


  2 Responses to “Shades Of Grey”

  1. [...] is not the first time I am writing about Gregory Crewdson (read my other article here) in this site.  I am a great admirer of his work.  What I enjoy even more than his images, is how [...]

  2. […] years ago photographer Gregory Crewdson gave a lecture on the many faces of his photography. Out of work and in the middle of a divorce, […]

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