By Rosi Huhn
The photo-artist, Gregory Crewdson is a kind of neo-romantic modern “wanderer” who leaves town, the city of New York, drives across the countryside, mostly in Massa- chusetts, and contemplates – in moments of solitude – nature, people, and environments. He doesn’t look for the greatness and the im- mensity of nature like the romantics, who, facing nature, developed their own emotional and spiritual interiority, sublime feeling, and philosophy in landscape painting. Rather, he looks for sublime instants and frightening per- spectives in daily life, mostly in suburbs and in rural regions that provoke a strange, uncan- ny feeling and – between beauty, derision, and abysses – randomly generate the immensity of social and human drama: soul-scapes.
As a “wanderer,” he encounters not only complex social realities, but also human na- ture and human psyche. He collects moods and ambiances. He memorizes and portrays individual and social conflict between dream and trauma. Whatever catches his attention – trees, abandoned people, pregnant women, babies, children, couples, houses, parking, crossways – becomes a fragment of reality on one of Crewdson’s huge stages, whose first dramaturge was life and whose second the artist himself.
For his staging and shooting, either in sound- stage production or on location, Crewdson recreates and re-invents scenes from real life. For the most part, he chooses “ready-made” stages from real life, which are created and animated by their inhabitants, people, ani- mals, plants, and cars and deal with past, presence and future. In these most random and marginal places, life already has left its imprint and created meaningful pictures.
Crewdson resets those scenes using cinemat- ographic and photo staging; he lights, focus- es, sets, transforms. He sublimes pictures and scenes from daily life, giving them symbolic- allegorical meaning and dimension: Like in Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life,” his pictures of contemporary life become mod- ern allegories, in which contemporary, tran- sitory moments of beauty become eternal and universal. Between dream and trauma, Crewdson’s allegories of contemporary life reveal the moment when inner, psychic fear turns into revelation, and thereby beauty… or vice versa.
In his picture, “Untitled (Oakstreet),” Greg- ory reveals a strange analogy between a house’s interior and a nude pregnant woman who stands in front of her house and faces nature. She is separated from the house she lives in and separated from nature; she is somewhere in between. The interior of the house is illuminated, but it keeps the secret of its inner life, its privacy, and its intimacy, exactly like the woman who keeps her secret of pregnancy within her body. On the thresh- old, between house and nature, the woman realizes in a sudden and sublime moment of awareness her belonging to nature, to time (vanity), and to civilization.
In this strange and shocking moment of “illumination” which has its analogy in the pho- to flash moment – the mental passage from the unconscious to the conscious becomes visible. The woman’s pregnancy announces the process of becoming and of coming into the field of vision.
Like in theatre, films, or painting, the artist works with changing light, twilight; he cre- ates scenes in which natural light competes with spotlight and floodlight. Thanks to lighting, setting, framing and staging and to cinematographic post-production; all real-life scenes are reshaped, modulated and accentu- ated until they resemble a dream and suggest the instant of revelation between the physical and metaphysical world.
Together with his crew and his film team, he works on a script, casts, focuses, frames, fixes, isolates, illuminates and resets all details. He illuminates what he wants to be illuminated, focuses on what he wants to be focused, and blurs what is meant to be distant and dusky. He fixes ambiances and atmospheres, im- ages and situations, emotions and relations from real life. He shows people in significant, symbolic life situations: lonely, abandoned people who strangely belong to their environ- ment, or are separated from them, who are in- between; they are actors and subjects – in life or on stage, they are enigmatic details of an unknown puzzle.
Crewdson’s alienated characters embody the pathologies within the drama of life, but they face their own traumatic constellation, which reveals itself in sudden moments of illumina- tion, often when beauty and trauma collide and are in balance. Crewdson gets into focus the sudden conjunction of sublime beauty, melancholy, and psychic terror, in which photographic illumination happens. In this frozen, eternalized moment, Crewdson’s in- vestment is accomplished. In just one last im- age, the whole energized process gets frozen. It’s the end of all material excitement. What formerly was material, in the photo becomes immaterial; the whole stage transforms into a picture, and reality transcends towards an allegory of life, a soul-scape, in which the im- mensity of human psyche appears.
Crewdson doesn’t take pictures but creates them. He is a dramaturge who conflates life and art; he is a moviemaker whose images don’t move; he is a wanderer in life and in picture-making and a performer in real life. During weeks and months he meets people, connects to their places and their lives. With his lavish and costly logistics for film shoot- ing, he brings cinematographic dynamic, ac- tivity and excitement into mostly inanimate regions. He collaborates and negotiates with inhabitants and their local institutions. For his various projects, he chooses to work with the same people, in the same places, until he is a part of their lives and they be- come a part of his.
The camera, the lens, and the lighting are Crewdson’s tools, and he uses technical support and aesthetics from photography and film to create pictures between reality and illusion: In his work, realistic images turn surreal.
Crewdson’s pictures – between reality, imagination and illusion – have a confusing naturalistic presence and accuracy in detail: motifs, objects, figures, and instants are re- moved from daily life and are reset, newly illuminated, put into perspective, by the cam- era’s “eyes.” All details are in a way authen- tic, taken by the camera in real time, in real places with real people; but at the same time, they emanate sacredness, a strange aura of “strange strangeness.”
Crewdson’s pictures require “skepsis,” since only the skeptical viewer looks beyond illu- sionary and seductive aesthetics and doubts what he sees. Cognitive, critical seeing hap- pens between or in-between oppositions, and it provides tranquillity through deeper evaluation, which – as in psychoanalysis – searches for recovery from error (illusion) and from pain.
“The skeptical ability is one that produces oppositions among things that appear and things that are thought in any way whatso- ever, one from which, because of the equal strength in the opposing objects and ac- counts, we come first to suspension of judge- ment, and after that to tranquillity.” Sextus Empiricus, PH 1.8.
Crewdson’s pictures deal with voyeurism at the same time that they deal with error and with blindness. We see or we might not see, what is in or out of focus, what is in-between the different perspectives and focuses. We doubt and finally look beyond the visible. In gaps or in interstices, in-between illusion and disillusion, fascination and deception, we re- alize the limits and the enigma of our percep- tion: Crewdson’s pictures lead us to the limits of sensitivity and intelligibility, to the limits of the material and the metaphysical world.
We like to be voyeurs, to look behind closed doors or windows, and we desire to access to hidden or forbidden, private or intimate spheres. Crewdson shines spotlights on those places, or uses overlays. Instead of offering quick satisfaction to the eye and to its curiosity, he questions the dark side of human nature and condition; we see from where we are seen; we see and we project ourselves in these moods, allegories of loneliness or abandon, melancholy or ter- ror. Crewdson reveals borderline cases, in transitory moments and in transformative situations, on the edge, between cross- ways, between public and intimate spaces, in empty houses, lost environments.
Mental and psychological dimension emerge from Crewdson’s paradoxical set- tings of space and light, from ambivalent relations and from strange, metaphori- cal images and analogies between people and houses, people and animals, people and nature. Like in romantic-ironic and later surrealistic aesthetics, we see in his photos pictures within pictures, rooms within rooms, passages and passageways, doors and windows. Instead of revealing us their secrets, they express dream, night- mare, hallucination, paranoia, or introver- sion; they suggest seeing as a “wandering” between error and illusion, and demand mental revision, distance, reflection, and doubt. What we perceive is that beyond the errors of seeing lie the fundamental experi- ence of vanity, stillness, paradox, and the mystery of life.
In the continuity of moral drama, which in 19th century Genre Painting denounces misery and social conflicts, Crewdson in his “photo-works” visualizes 20th century hu- man and social misery between American traum (dream) and trauma. His allegories of contemporary life show the psychic and social borderline between neurosis and psy- chosis. As a psycho-photo-analyst, he pur- sues an artistic-analytical work of “Traum- anatomy” between anamnesis (medical case history) and anabasis (resolution).
As spectators, we are asked to be doctor and patient at the same time: we are al- ways on the edge of, or in-between, op- posite realities: in spatial paradoxes of inside and outside, background and fore- ground, clear-obscure; in paradox light- ing and contrasting, in-between natural and artificial light, spotlight, floodlight, twilight. Crewdson multiplies points of view and reverses spatial order; he cre- ates confusion and provokes curiosity. His cinematographic procedures resemble psychoanalytical practices in which the analyst shines lights on the hidden parts of our unconscious and darkens the con- scious ones to better focus or blur, erase or change perspectives.
Crewdson’s work questions the limits of visibility and intelligibility; it reveals the gap between what we see and what we do not, what we feel, imagine or project. Be- tween “armed eyes” and “blind eye” we are invited to see in multi-dimensional and multi-perspective ways rather than to view as predators do – using monocular and monolithic vision. Multi-dimensional emotion, psyche, and drama reveal them- selves in the in-between of images, forms, objects, characters, and their surround- ing. People are shown in contemplation rather than in action; they are unspec- tacular rather than spectacular; and they are shown in moments of suspense and mystery. Viewers recall painful life and dream situations, and they recall instants of suspense, as in movies of Hitchcock, or portraits showing human and social dilemma in beautiful surroundings, à la David Lynch.
However, the difference is that Crewd- son’s movie is stopped and interrupted; it shows an eternalized instant taken out of time. His pictures don’t move; they question what was before and what comes after. Like monads, they incorporate the past, present, and future; expressions, gestures, and situations are shown in a halted moment, and they last forever. Crewdson’s final photo shot stopped the “movie” that we imagine in this pictures. In this last click, everything is fixed that the artist has physically and mentally prepared us for from the beginning of his long cinematographic work.
All this ends with the unique, very last im- age, in which time is stopped and human, collective drama appears as a still-life. The last shot fixes the instant when physical truth transcends to mental truth, individ- ual to universal, and ephemeral to eternal. In this very last moment, the life’s stage is transformed into photography, the photo picture into a still-image, a still-life deal- ing with vanity.
Every detail in Crewdson’s pictures encap- sulates different stages of the artist’s wan- dering through the spectacular world of the image. As master of multiple perspec- tive and viewpoints, Crewdson competes with Velasquez’s paintings, as a master of realistic-symbolic still-lives, with 17th century Dutch painting. Between realism and surrealism, he continues in the line of the realistic, naturalistic, and surrealistic 19th and 20th century painters. His works’ closest affinity is to the paintings of the American painter Edward Hopper, which question the space between the American dream and reality.
On his multimedia crossroad, Crewdson transcends symbols, narratives, and im- ages, and he moves them toward dream, trauma, and hallucination. He reveals a world in which everything seems to be under control, but in reality nothing is. The more he tries to imitate the real, the more he gets distant to it; his highly en- tertaining cinematographic work reveals how many artefacts we need to get to the illusion of the real, which is a movie real- ity. Crewdson’s neo-romantic pictures of meaning (Allegories/Sinnbilder) are ac- complished once the artistic vision fixes the sublime moment in which the subject realizes itself in a moment of awareness, and the picture becomes an “Allegory of Error and Wandering.”
The GROUND Issue #03