Gregory Crewdson: Chronicle of Decay
By Christopher Sharrett.
I write this short piece on photographer Gregory Crewdson for a film/television journal with the simple rationale that Crewdson’s photographs, as has by now been acknowledged, have the aspect of one-image movies. Their lighting and composition recall the look of some of the fantastic cinema. Indeed, Crewdson resembles a film director in his way of working; he stands and directs, with a photographer manning a large camera, in charge of the actual picture-taking, as if he were a director of cinematography. Crewdson also has a large lighting team, set decorators, costume designers, and the like. Crewdson’s exteriors are “real” locations of Western Massachusetts towns like North Adams, Pittsfield, and Lee, except that these images are enhanced, either before pictures are taken or in post-production. Interiors are most often constructed sets, taking his work closer to cinema practices.
More important, Crewdson’s photos remind us how photography preceded cinema with its peculiar psychological impulses, provoking viewers to want more insight into being as images “redeemed physical reality.” The photo exhibitions of Matthew Brady, such as The Dead of Antietam (1862), made sickened viewers imagine what happened just before Brady’s artists captured those images of overwhelming death, when the dead men were yet alive. Consequently, as frightened as they were, audiences wanted more (public boredom with an event set in then as now – tons of Brady’s plates would end up as window panes). Brady created, in a sense, frames from the films people had in their heads.
Even more specifically, Crewdson’s photos represent an important chronicle of American decay, a rebuke (one of many to be sure, but one of the most alluring) of the American promises still mouthed by politicians and the drum-beaters for capitalist private interest.
Crewdson’s images owe much to Edward Hopper, the cinema’s single most over-cited painter; his style permeates all sorts of films, from noir to horror films like Deep Red (1975). Hopper’s images of lonely people in lonely rooms, of empty-looking buildings on empty streets, are now closely associated with the downbeat mode of American cinema. He is seen as so foundational that contemporary filmmakers commit the error of actually replicating his paintings within their films, as if to acknowledge that they have no imaginations of their own (honest enough).
The influences are noble, until we look at some of Crewdson’s public statements. He has great respect for David Lynch, and thought Blue Velvet (1985) transformative of the cinema, while legitimating his own vision of photography. I’m not going to go into a tirade about the pernicious effect of David Lynch on the cinema – I would suggest Robin Wood’s revised introductions to Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. Wood says just about all we should know, as critics and as human beings, about Lynch. Blue Velvet appeared at a dismal historical moment – the Reagan years – and was perhaps a good riposte to that era’s “morning in America” philosophy, until one reads about Lynch’s basic conservatism. What is most annoying about Lynch’s apologists is the sense that Lynch invented a fantastical view of the world, bringing the “weird” into images of everyday life as he shows us (from an imperious vantage point) the postmodern way of looking at all these stupid people, all rendered with artifice derived from Fifties TV shows like Leave it to Beaver, as if to say that there is no reality outside of those shows, and no reason to empathize with human beings.
Crewdson comments on the American scene as it stands in the deindustrialized moment. If hyperreal art made us challenge the status of representation by making paintings seem like photographs, Crewdson gives photographs the aspect of paintings, although he is not trying for some epistemological breakthrough via a new tromp l’oeil effect. Rather, he drains his images of life, taking away photography’s mystique of being able to “capture moments of your life,” the selling point of cheap cameras and film companies as the public took to photos and home movies as a way of resisting mortality and stopping time. The painterly aspect of Crewdson’s photos adhere to the real while raising anxieties about the image’s ability to deceive, to undercut our belief in the image’s coherence to ordinary sentiment that appealed to mid-twentieth-century America and the supposed innocence that needed preserving.
There are certain photographers with whom Crewdson seems to have affinity, notably William Eggleston, who virtually invented and valorized color photography when the form was vilified in postwar art circles. He creates abstract images by framing quotidian items of daily life (a windowsill, the top of a chair, a Formica table), but he most often captures scenes of the everyday world from the fifties to the present, with an emphasis on the disposable, kitsch, “bad taste,” and decay, although never with an aura of judgment. He is perhaps most famous for his portfolio on Graceland, Elvis Presley’s overripe home and self-created tomb in Memphis, Tennessee, also Eggleston’s home. These pictures make us consider what we have lived with for generations, why we accept plastic as normal and preferable, tolerating and then enjoying waste, and allowing advertising to pollute our sightlines (the topic was best explored by Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, 1970, one of his shamefully neglected films, still in need of restoration). Of course some may consider Eggleston’s pictures simply fun – they are most often sunlit, with highly saturated color. But his frequent juxtaposing of, say, a faux Fifties diner with a rusted-out hulk of a car abandoned on a road shoulder reveals a critical sensibility.
Still closer to Crewdson is Stephen Shore, whose images influenced the look of the superb television series The Wire (2002-2008), one of the best narratives about deindustrialized urban life yet created. Shore shows us crowded parking lots on overcast days, the drab interior of a living room, a gas station. Some complain that Shore doesn’t intervene enough, producing what amount to snapshots of the usual. But this is his importance: he reminds us of what the unenhanced eye sees and comes to expect, without the photographer’s tendency to underscore.
What differentiates Crewdson from his peers is his strong emphasis on twilight (there is a coffee table book and exhibition entitled Twilight, 2003). His is a nightworld, his most fascinating photos taken outside, on small-town streets, the image taken as we see just a trace of pink-blue sunlight at the top of trees, the image otherwise in darkness, punctuated just a bit by artificial light from store signs. I mentioned the locations of his work – deindustrialized towns in Western Massachusetts that show the full effect of neoliberal capitalism that has destroyed the endemic economies (and the populations who once constituted a solid – and relatively happy – middle class). The haunted aspect of these images run counter to so-called “ruin porn,” particularly Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled (2010), photographs of factories, schools, and the grand Art Deco public buildings of Detroit looking like sets for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film. Some argue that the ruin porn trend has its roots in the fascination with ruins found in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, with its ancient ruins at twilight. But these images evoke a sense of angst centered on a lost cultural past that still ineffably lingers. Ruin porn, on the other hand, trades in certain forms of delight, perhaps in an “I told you so” critique of the phony capitalist promise. There is also the sense of sheer awe embodied in immense rotting factories, creating a new gothic horror (exploited in the 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive). Angst belongs to a positive sensibility, one that recognizes alienation and celebrates the past, with enough of a life-affirming temperament to conceive of the present and the future; the emotions surrounding ruin porn refutes anything but catastrophe, preferring nothing but the doom that general popular culture has long since announced.
Crewdson’s images speak to Main Street (bringing closure to the ideas of Sinclair Lewis). The privately-owned local store is gone, leaving the owner to sit alone on the curb as the big-box stores destroy us offstage. At times, Crewdson investigates the domestic scene in what for me are some of his most mannered images, evoking the painters of his peer Eric Fischl, another investigator of domestic perversity in the postmodern scene. Crewdson creates an Ophelia in his Twilight series. A suburban living room (of the Fifties, I think) is partially filled with water, the furniture half-soaked, various domestic debris floating about. In the foreground is a woman drifting in this strange swamp, her pose recalling Millais’ Ophelia (1851-52), but this one gives off little sense of Hamlet’s cruelty, unless we figure in the domestic space in which she has been imprisoned. The image has been evoked from an overhead angle in the signature image for Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), this Ophelia still in her wedding dress. Both Crewdson and Trier’s images repeat Hamlet’s insistent cry “no more marriages,” with eros under the marriage ritual a signifier of death.
Crewdson tends to refute in interviews the political nature of his ghostly images of Pittsfield, Lee, North Adams and other towns. He is no polemicist, but is there other art more specifically grounded in America’s final moments, moments anchored in the promises of its very beginning (see Crewdson’s implied exploration of an American of forests, at its very start, filled with superstition and genocide, in the Cathedral of the Pines)?
Christopher Sharrett has taught film studies for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International. He is currently revisiting Leos Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass.