Crewdson manufactures large scale tableau vivant with the intention of imparting psychological tension. The photographs are often exteriors which include large areas and several people. Often a single individual features as the psychological fulcrum.
The balance of natural and artificial lighting is a central feature; Crewdson’s work is often made at dusk in order for the various light sources to exert maximum dramatic effect. His work is frequently referred to as ‘cinematic’ due to the extensive use of powerful motion-picture luminaires. Bringing this luminous muscle to bear in near-daylight requires considerable wattage – multiple 24kW ‘Brutes’ are often employed with the attendant mobile generators and electrician personnel. Camera and luminaire support is elaborate, requiring a variety of aerial platforms. All this equipment and technical support results in a location which resembles a complex movie set rather than a stills scene and Crewdson directs the ensemble meticulously.
Within the frame the otherwise quotidian elements gain their somewhat surreal presence by virtue of their positioning, along with the alignment of the figures and most particularly, the gaze or expression of the key characters. They are seen bearing the ‘thousand-yard stare’, deeply involved in their own internal dialogue while we are allowed, encouraged, to interpret their circumstances based on the surroundings. Even though the main figure’s face may take up a small part of the frame, Crewdson takes great care to ensure that their visage expresses his intent for the picture.
Crewdson works with constructed incongruity to produce an air of unease, of dramatic events which have just recently occurred or are about to take place. The transfixed figures invite us to examine the scene in detail and build our own meanings. He uses subtle, quiet drama; there are no imminent collisions, hidden assailants or impending catastrophes. Even when a momentous event is in progress, such as the house fire in Fig 2, the moment is still and pregnant with possibility.
Although he has become known for his large scale productions, Crewdson adopts a more basic approach in his more recent series “Cathedral of the Pines”, saying:
“These are much more intimate in scale and in content. I’m working with a small group, all pictures were made in Becket, on location, in interiors and exteriors, and it’s very kind of pared down. So consequently, the pictures feel more personal and, I think, more private. I know that’s vague, but the other hallmark in the pictures is that nature plays in a big way. There’s a relationship between figures and nature in almost every single picture, whether in an interior or exterior.” Thephotographicjournal.com. (2017)
Crewdson’s work realises significant sums when sold through his representing gallery, and in the secondary market auction prices frequently exceed $20,000 for a C-type print; even production stills sell for around $3,000. A thirty-year career in photography has established him as a highly collectable artist and his style of work clearly appeals to the modern collector.
But what about the actual contents of the photographs? The aesthetic qualities? I have read numerous interviews with Crewdson (he gives freely of his time to journalists) but I have been unable to find anything resembling a critical review of the actual work itself. Every article concentrates on the top-heavy production effort, his internal emotional processes and his life experience but few discuss the pictures themselves. They are indeed pleasing to look at and this being the declared intent of the maker they are successful in that regard. The aesthetic appeal, the quality of beauty, is a necessary transformative feature which allows the work to function to the fullest extent.
Alec Dawson (Fig 4) is another photographer who weaves emotional disturbance into his pictures. His use of unusual lighting angles and sources is similar to that of Crewdson but his work has more implied activity. Both photographers adopt a slightly exaggerated colour grading, not so much that the scene appears artificial but sufficient to establish it as abnormal. Blues are emphasised, skin tones strategically lightened.
Dawson explains some of the photographic motivation for his series “Nobody Claps Anymore”:
“We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes. The chronic evolution of our lives can generate emotional cancers. In our youth, these cancers are small and neoplastic; for some of us, these small nuisances grow into oppressive and paralyzing monsters. Nobody Claps Anymore is my response to my own emotional cancers: regret, isolation, anxiety, and depression. It is my de facto art therapy. My photographic works are about internal emotional dramas which often reveal themselves in quiet solitary moments in people’s homes; I use cinematic lighting to dramatize these moments” [Alecdawson.net. (2017)]
Again, the aim is to allow the picture to provoke empathy in the viewer.
A further example of a photographer working in this field is Thomas Friedrich Schaefer. His photography shows interior settings in which the lighting, though less elaborate than Crewdson’s, serves his purpose equally well. He includes ‘practical’ lights – those which you might expect to find in the constructed setting such as standard lamps and ceiling lights – along with studio lighting to produce a mixed effect. In Fig 4 below his clever use of lighting suggests a naturally lit interior but closer examination of the shadows suggest that a number of additional sources are positioned out-of-shot.
“[Schaefer] continues to stage images in his studio in Berlin. His work includes hyper-realistic sets that provide the narrative framework to moments of interpersonal relationship. What seem like irrelevant and forgettable moments take on an importance and poignancy. ” Thomas Friedrich Schaefer. (2017)
This essential component, the amplification of the mundane to establish dramatic tension, is present in each of the foregoing photographer’s work. The pictures are indeed pleasing to look at and this being the declared intent of the makers they are successful in that regard. The aesthetic appeal, the quality of beauty, is a necessary transformative feature which allows the work to function to the fullest extent.
Alecdawson.net. (2017). Nobody Claps Anymore – Alec Dawson. [online] Available at: http://www.alecdawson.net/nobody-claps-anymore/ [Accessed 26 Nov. 2017].
Thephotographicjournal.com. (2017). Gregory Crewdson. [online] Available at: http://thephotographicjournal.com/interviews/gregory-crewdson/ [Accessed 2 Dec. 2017].
Thomas Friedrich Schaefer. (2017). About. [online] Available at: http://www.tfschaefer.net/about/ [Accessed 1 Dec. 2017].
Fig 1 Invaluable.co.uk. (2017). View Gregory Crewdson art prices and auction results. [online] Available at: https://www.invaluable.co.uk/catalog/searchLots.cfm?scp=m&issc=1&shw=50&ad=DESC&artistref=6ar1b5ci2k&alf=1&ord=2&row=51 [Accessed 2 Dec. 2017].
Fig 2 YouTube. (2017). Gregory Crewdson’s “House Fire”. (A sound piece by Mark Cooper) (2014). [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-Enqa84Nco [Accessed 1 Dec. 2017].
Fig 3 Thephotographicjournal.com. (2017). Gregory Crewdson. [online] Available at: http://thephotographicjournal.com/interviews/gregory-crewdson/ [Accessed 2 Dec. 2017].
Fig 4 Alecdawson.net. (2017). Alec Dawson – Art Photographer. [online] Available at: http://www.alecdawson.net/ [Accessed 26 Nov. 2017].
Fig 5 Thomas Friedrich Schaefer. (2017). The Schmidts. [online] Available at: http://www.tfschaefer.net/schmidts/ [Accessed 1 Dec. 2017].