We could stare for hours at a Gregory Crewdson photograph and still find something new and amazing to contemplate. From the tiniest detail—the cans and bottles lining a kitchen shelf, the curl of a thumbed-through paperback on a living-room coffee table, a pair of fluffy slippers discarded on stairs, a plume of smoke wafting around a corner—to the masterful manipulation of light, shadow, and dozens of objects, Gregory’s noirish images may be static, but they live and breathe with the disquiet of everyday, in-between moments.
A native of Brooklyn who holds an M.F.A. from Yale, Gregory has garnered wide acclaim and an international following for his elaborately staged, cinematic, detail-packed photos of small-town disconnection and isolation. Like a movie—he’s a huge fan of film, especially the vintage variety—his productions can require multiple crew members (40 or more) and months of advance planning to create. But instead of models or actors, he often features everyday Joes and Janes as his subjects. Gregory’s photos also don’t adhere to a specific narrative the way a movie does, and this mysterious quality allows the viewer to conjure up his or her own story.
In 2000, filmmaker Ben Shapiro began turning the camera on Gregory, documenting the artist’s process of creating his Beneath the Roses series, shown here. The result is the 2012 documentary Brief Encounters, a mesmerizing behind-the-scenes look at the artist at work and reflecting on his life and influences. (Lucky for us, it’s now streaming on Netflix. You want to watch this one ASAP. Really.) Annie met up with Gregory a couple weeks ago at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and we had a chance to spend 10 minutes asking him some questions.
Fresh American: What’s your first memory of being drawn to something design or art oriented?
Gregory Crewdson: I’m still waiting for it. [laughs] I would say it was when my father brought me to the Diane Arbus art retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art when I was 10 years old. It was the first time I realized the power pictures have.
FA: What was it like to have the camera turned on you for the filming of Brief Encounters? Did it change the way you work?
GC: Somehow, during the shooting, [director Ben Shapiro] integrated himself into the entire production, so I wasn’t really aware of it. Only now, in retrospect, it’s much more difficult to see myself on film. The film documents 10 years of my life, and I don’t think anyone could have predicted what would happen in that time. It’s difficult to observe.
It’s changed the way I work in that for my most recent production, I essentially closed the set. I’m very thankful for the film and the documentation of the entire process, but it made me hyperaware that the next body of work I didn’t want to have documented in any way. I wanted the pictures to feel more private, more intimate.
FA: In Brief Encounters, you talk about the disappointment of the final photo never quite living up to the image in your mind. Have you ever had the opposite experience, where the photo exceeded your expectation, or you came up with something better on set?
GC: Maybe briefly. All the pictures end up being other than what I originally planned. Making pictures at this scale, there’s always something that goes wrong. Things happen in the process that I never would have dreamed of. You have an idea, and it fills you with a momentary exultation, but it’s temporary. Ultimately, each picture ends up being disappointing. That’s why you keep making new ones. In any artistic enterprise, you’re inspired, you make the art, and then by necessity you move on.
FA: What other art form or design medium most inspires you?
GC: The number one for me is movies.
FA: Unlike a movie, which has a defined narrative arc, your photos don’t adhere to a specific narrative. Was that a reaction to how movies work?
GC: I think it’s endemic of the medium itself. Movies exist in time, with sound and dialogue and movement. It’s more of a storytelling medium. Photographs, in contrast, are frozen and mute. Rather than seeing that as a limitation, I try to make that a strength. By forgoing a narrative, I can just invest in making a singular moment that’s beautiful and hopefully as perfect as possible.
FA: What are you currently working on?
GC: The most recent project is called Cathedral of the Pines. The details are under wraps right now, but I can tell you that I’m making the pictures in the Berkshires. I’m very excited about them.
FA: When do you expect them to be complete?
GC: The first of never. [laughs]
FA: What’s on your walls right now?
GC: I live in a [renovated] church in Berkshires. I try to keep the walls as minimal as possible, because there’s something so beautiful about the old wood. I do have a few pictures, including a Diane Arbus photograph and a Cindy Sherman picture and photo by O. Winston Link, an obscure photographer from the 1950s.