I had a vague memory of seeing Crewdson on TV some years ago directing one his photos with a crew and lighting set up akin to a cinema production. At the time it didn’t really fall within the framework of what I would have called ‘photography’ and I felt somewhat indifferent towards it. Fast forward a few years and now I have a more open mind to such things. When I started this FiP course I still held this fairly narrow view but understood that my mind was in for a good stretching and that previously held positions might soon feel untenable.
The Cathedral of the Pines exhibition occupies three floors of the Photographers’ Gallery. His photos are very large and are not crowed next to each other on the walls, each has space to ‘breath’. Emerging from the lift on the fifth floor the first thing that struck me was the image quality. They are painterly, in the sense that composition and lighting has been meticulously worked out: a studio sensibility brought into the outdoors as well as domestic interiors. It’s also reasonable to assume Crewdson is using high quality camera.
The image quality is outstanding with lighting Rembrandt would have been proud of! (Gregory Crewdson: Woman at a Sink)
But enough of the ‘techie’ stuff, what of the images? Well to call them ‘staged’ feels like an understatement! Just with his attention to technical details he is again meticulous with the use of props and actors. Known for his cinematic approach calling the people who appear in his images ‘models’ doesn’t feel right. My knowledge of cinema is relatively thin bit it’s clear that he is influenced by it or perhaps, my appropriate for the current age, quality TV. The images in Cathedral of the Pines look like they could be stills from an HBO drama set in some small rural town in the USA where everyone knows everyone and they’ve all got ‘dirt’ on each other. There is also a further influence at work: men and half naked women sitting around flooded, disused and rusted quarry workings are suggestive of European landscape painting. Needless to say none of the images are not happy ones.
In the video Crewdson had made to accompany the exhibition we learn that experiences from his youth have informed the series and he tells us they raise questions rather than give answers. I discovered the video on Youtube after seeing the exhibition and felt pleased about this comment. That’s because as I went around the exhibition I found myself ‘people watching’. Looking into each image I tried to piece together what was going on in the lives of those depicted. The staging and the facial expressions all leaded me to conclude these folk were leading a miserable existence. With some imagination it wasn’t too much of a leap to conceive that loveless relationships, domestic abuse, even child abuse, and misogyny were taking place. In some images I was left wondering if the victims of these were planning to take things into their own hands to resolve their torments: the young women in the barn has to hand a fiendishly sharp looking saw, lengths of chain while some of the floorboards have been taken up. Throughout the images all the vehicles are old and people watch VHS tapes, which makes me think the series may have a sense of place and time about them. The same landscape painting can be found on the walls of at least two different dwellings. Moreover dead birds, chains, windfall apples, open doors when it snowy and icy outside all point to a thorough use of symbolism across the series.
But did I like it? Although the series is rather perturbing with its ever-present misery and depression I have become rather intrigued by it. It certainly raises lots of questions, even those beyond the obvious – for example, I’m OK with all the nakedness but why do these folk chose to go outside on cold winter’s day in bare feet? Writing this a few days after my visit to the gallery I’m still puzzling over it and feel more and drawn to the series – I’d certainly go and see it again if I got the chance. Staged photography was certainly not my ‘thing’ a few months ago but looking at the work of Crewdson and, earlier in FiP, Tom Hunter I am developing a greater understanding of it. I don’t know if it will ever become part of my own photographic vocabulary but with greater exposure to staged photography has come a greater acceptance and a deepening respect for it .