Gregory Crewdson creates large-scale photographs of elaborately staged scenes that resonate in your mind like dreams—they don’t say anything directly, but they suggest so much that you are drawn in to the image and compelled to create a meaning and a backstory based on what you see.
Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, directed by Ben Shapiro, is a portrait of the artist at work, primarily on the photographs in his collection “Beneath the Roses”. The documentary is itself a work of art, beautifully shot in high-definition digital by Shapiro and edited by himself, Nancy Kennedy, and Tom Patterson. Despite being only 77 minutes long, it feels both comprehensive and unhurried, offering the viewer a chance to understand Crewdson’s working methods while also providing an introduction to his photography.
The title, Brief Encounters, contains more than a touch of irony, because nothing about the making of this film (Shapiro worked on it for ten years), or the making of a Crewdson photograph, is brief. But for all of Crewdson’s preparations, the result of each elaborate staging is a still photograph, capturing the briefest of encounters—a fraction of a second of light reflected off the created scene and captured by a large-format camera.
Similarly, although you can “see” any photograph in a fraction of a second, in the sense that reflected light is perceived by your retina that quickly, to really see and understand a Crewdson photograph takes much longer. In fact, they’re so packed with visual information that they reward minutes and even hours of scrutiny, and the fact that you must be an active participant in the process of creating meaning makes them that much more memorable.
As is made clear in this film, nothing is accidental in a Crewdson photograph—he controls every detail, from the setting to the props to the exact placement and appearance of each person appearing in the frame, with the assistance of a large crew including a director of photography (Richard Sands) and a whole slew of people to do lighting, hair, makeup, fog, and so on. Finally, Crewdson isn’t above post-production manipulation of the results of a shoot to get an image that better matches the one in his his mind’s eye. That’s not a criticism, just an observation that he uses the best available technology to produce the artistic results he wants, just as Ansel Adams did in his day.
None of this will surprise anyone with much awareness of the history of photography, but it’s quite different from the documentary paradigm that many of us were raised on. Of course, Victorian photographers also staged elaborate scenes that they then photographed, so Crewdson’s work is squarely within a mainstream historical tradition. The result of a Crewdson shoot is real in the sense that the end product is a real photograph, but the scene portrayed in that photograph is a creation of his mind and talent.
And yet, his photographs are not entirely artificial creations, either. Many Crewdson photos are shot in real, i.e., pre-existing, locations—including public streets—which he identifies on scouting missions, rather like a director choosing locations for a film shoot. The combination of these “found” locations and the elaborate scenes Crewdson stages in them is part of what makes his work so distinctive. The use of pre-existing locations also adds a degree of difficulty that gives the whole process an edge, because they take away some of the control that he enjoys when working on a soundstage.
Much of Brief Encounters is concerned with how Crewdson produces the haunting photographs that have become his signature product. Shapiro spends less time exploring why Crewdson produces the particular type of image that he does, although perhaps that is a question that could never be answered precisely for any artist. He finds hints in Crewdson’s early life: his father, a psychiatrist, met his patients in a basement office in the family’s brownstone, and Crewdson recalls trying without success to hear what was being said in that forbidden, adults-only space. Crewdson also mentions photographic influences, including Cindy Sherman and Diane Arbus, and notes that his father took him to a show of the latter’s work when he was 12, without explanation (they weren’t much of a museum-going family).
Even if you don’t care for Crewdson’s photographs (some find his work derivative or melodramatic), Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters is still worth seeing, because Shapiro focuses on the process of creation more than he does the end product. As such, he’s produced a fascinating portrait of a successful artist at work.
Extras on the DVD include two deleted scenes, five additional interviews, the original trailer, and a conversation among Crewdson, Shapiro, film critic Elvis Mitchell, and novelist Jonathan Lethem at a January 2013 screening event at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In addition, the liner notes include a conversation between Crewdson and Shapiro, and a Director’s Statement from Shapiro.