I was cutting it pretty fine. I'd left it to the very last day to get along to see The Photographers' Gallery new show of Gregory Crewdson's work, Cathedral of the Pines. He's a popular guy too, way more popular than I'd realised, so I did well to get in. I was glad I did. His work is superb. Evocative, melancholy, and pensive. I'd even risk the adjective lyrical when describing it.
Spread over three storeys of the gallery it's Crewdson's most personal work yet, all the models are either family members or friends, and it moves away from his impressive images of urban dystopias to a more rural setting. That of the small Massachusetts town of Becket whose population is less than two thousand.
The Disturbance (2014)
City or country though, Crewdson's work still has something of the ennui of Edward Hopper's deservedly praised paintings and, like Hopper, he's a master of lighting. These works aren't snapshots but posed tableaux that often involve a large team of people and several day's work to get right. They tell stories but, as the still photograph demands, they tell only parts of the stories.
We, the viewers, are invited to fill in the blanks. What are these people staring longingly out of windows looking for? What goes on under the arch of that bridge? What's happening out in that forest and why do so many people drive out there? Why are so many naked people out in such cold weather? They'll catch colds.
The Mattress (2014)
Woman in Parked Car (2014)
The Haircut (2014)
Of course we don't, and can't, know that. We can't even be certain if Crewdson wants us to know - or if he even knows himself. These ambiguous narratives would appear to be entirely intentional. It seems like Crewdson's subject is the unknowability of others, their protocols, their moral agency, and how they harness or act upon their desires.
It'd be pretty easy when dealing with such subject matter to be heavy handed or take a moralising, sanctimonious tone. I think the reason Crewdson's work has gained so many admirers is that, instead of that, it's steeped in humanity. The naked, and half-clothed, bodies in his photographs couldn't be described as pornographic yet they've not been rendered in any way repulsive. They're shot with the honesty that any subject deserves and that most subjects, especially family and friends, would insist upon.
Beneath the Bridge (2014)
Reclining Woman on Sofa (2014)
The Motel (2014)
Windows either appear as gateways to tantalisingly different worlds (when shot from indoors, see Reclining Woman on Sofa, The Disturbance, or The Den) or as pictures within pictures (when shot from outside looking in, best demonstrated by the Hopperesque blue clapperboard cottage of Woman at Kitchen Window).
The outdoors may be tantalising but it looks dangerous too. It's snowy, bad things might happen, and, in The Ice Hut, it appears food may be difficult to come by. But to stay indoors in assumed safety risks boredom and succumbing to the stultifying routines our minds, our bodies, and the societies we live in demand of us. It seems to me as if Crewdson's interest lies in the liminal state that lies between the way we show ourselves in public and the internal, interior person we may actually be. But then I could be reading his work wrong. That's what happens with ambiguous narratives.
The Ice Hut (2014)
The Den (2013)
The VW Bus (2013)
The narrative of Crewdson's own life is less ambiguous. Born in Brooklyn in 1962, as a teenager he joined power pop band The Speedies (whose song 'Let Me Take Your Photo', possibly knowingly, was used by Hewlett Packard in 2005 to promote their range of digital cameras) before making good on his hobby of photography to create his first collection, Natural Wonders, in the mid-nineties. Natural Wonders was an almost dayglo consideration of day to day life in Massachusetts, so in many respects set the template for Cathedral of the Pines.
Citing the work of Hopper, Diane Arbus, and films like Blue Velvet and Night of the Hunter as influences, Crewdson, much like David Lynch, seems to poke at what we once called the seedy underbelly of small town American life. Even if the shirt that was covering that seedy underbelly has now been ripped off to for all to see how grotesque it is as America's ugliest minds and egos pollute the body politic via Twitter, Fox News, and Breitbart.
Woman at Kitchen Window (2013)
The Shed (2013)
The Barn (2013)
The subjects of Cathedral of the Pines have far more humility about them than many of their nations leaders, opinion formers, and over promoted stump orators. Perhaps the reason they're sad is because they can see what's happening to their country but I don't think so. I think the borderline vacant stares, either into the distance or into the mirror, speak of a deeper, more unknowable, melancholy. It's as if we can only feel most alive when we accept that we will one day die. To accept the inevitability of our body's falling is, in some way, one of the toughest things we can do but in doing so we accept that we are truly alive. For only those who never lived can never die.
Woman in Bathroom (2013)
The Drainpipe (2014)
The Pine Forest (2014)
It's an interpretation and, of course, a very tangential one but, surely, art (and photography most definitely is an art form) should at the very least make us either feel something or make us think something. Crewdson's work made me do both of those things and the fact that the large photographs were a pleasure to look at too made the exhibition one I'm very glad I didn't miss. I don't think I'll leave it until the last day next time.
Woman on Road (2014)
Cathedral of the Pines (2014)