His shooting style influenced mine in part just that I had to respond to his process. His picture-taking is so elaborate—from the months of inventing and prep to all the components of the final shoot—that it was a challenge to find a way to cover it all.
“The whole process of making art is an act of faith, in a way, this idea that you’re going to will into existence that means something to the larger world.” Gregory Crewdson describes his “whole process” more than once in Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, Ben Shapiro’s engaging, astute documentary about the photographer. It’s not so much that he repeats himself, it’s more that the process changes shape.
Opening this week at New York’s Film Forum, the film, shot from 2005 through 2009, tells a series of stories. It traces the evolution of one long-term project, Beneath the Roses, a series of photos Crewdson shot from 2002 to 2008, and offers glimpses of what came before and after, in particular his images of Cinecittà, taken in 2009. It also tells Crewdson’s story too, in part through his self-reflections and in part through scenes on his sets, observing his method and recording his arrangements of light and bodies.
As he speaks, Crewdson remains on the move. He drives through the towns in Western Massachusetts that serve as settings for so many photos in Beneath the Roses, towns where the streets are empty and the buildings are low. Looking at these photos, sad and also densely colored, Rick Moody sees “an implicit economic critique I think he would resist,” as well as “a heightened emotion and drama because of the disenfranchisement that’s taking place there.” Perhaps. Crewdson concedes this much: “I do think some of the pictures capture some of the despair of poverty, but they’re not political in any direct way. If that is there, I want it to be more submerged in terms of the content.”
Just so, he decides to create an image with a man he’s seen before, a man with a shopping cart who greets him on the sidewalk (“You’re the closest thing to an art historian we got!”). The film charts the process of the composition, the position of the camera, the pose struck, the wait for the light to be perfect—light which is typically, in Crewdson’s photos, twilight, “Mostly because that’s when we can use the lights” (and here the film’s camera turns to show the array of large hot lights erected above the street, poised. The light turns, Crewdson speaks, “Position, and hold.” His camera, operated by DP Rick Sands, clicks, as do the smaller cameras handled by assistants.
The composition, at once vast and intimate, suggests all manner of “political” questions, maybe beginning with how the man has come to be here, what’s in his cart, and how the darkening sky above him shapes your response to what you see, and also what you imagine. It makes devastating sense that he was deeply influenced by the work Diane Arbus and also David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (“It changed my whole world I think,” he says, as you see a photo of firemen on bright green lawn). His work concocts both calm and chaos, loss and hope.
Crewdson says, “I feel very strongly that every artist has a single story to tell,” he says, “The struggle is to tell and retell that story again and again in visual form and try to challenge that story.” He conjures the challenge by various means. He likes to drive and look, he likes to construct and he likes to… swim. Mostly, Gregory Crewdson swims in lakes, for long distances: the camera watches from shore as he dives in and disappears into rippling, opaque water. “You sort of get lost in yourself and there’s a feeling of being apart from the world,” Crewdson explains, “also, a certain terror when you’re swimming in a lake and it’s murky.” In losing yourself, you find yourself, or maybe you find something else. “Sometimes,” he says, “an image comes up to the surface.”
The images that come to the surface, those that make it into Crewdson’s oeuvre, are as perplexing as they are beautiful. “I just focus on that moment,” he says, “to make that moment as beautiful and mysterious as possible.” Yes, and. These many moments take many more to build, as the film reveals. If his sets look like movies sets, he also notes the primary difference: “Unlike a movie, a photograph is frozen, so it has to be exactly right.”
The film observes the making of several of these frozen, exactly right moments, including “Twin Beds” and also “Untitled (Birth),”, photos comprised literally of layers (multiple shots digitally edited onto one another) and also offering layers—of meaning, of feeling. As he composes, Crewdson collaborates, his assistants acting on cue, his conversations comprised of as many questions as conclusions.
Working with Colleen, a subject in Pittsfield, MA, he has her sit on a curb, and gaze off: “Try smoking a cigarette,” he suggests, then has her stretch her legs, move her arm. “Just get lost in your own mood, all right?” Before she sits, Colleen tells the story of how she came here. “Actually,” she says, “I clean houses. He just asked me the other day. I’ve been cleaning for him for a couple of years. “I’m nervous because I’m not photogenic at all.” There’s no such thing. Brief Encounters makes clear that everyone and everything are photogenic, painfully and perfectly photogenic.