Even if you don’t recognize his name, you’ve probably seen his photos. Back in 2005 his series Beneath the Roses crisply captured the silent pauses of small-town USA living with all the theatrical staging of a blockbuster movie production. The American photographer, whose previous subjects included insects, animals, and body parts in Natural Wonders, has truly embraced the narrative potential of dramatic scene photography with earlier collection Twilight and Beneath the Roses.
The production of the New Yorker’s artwork is on a scale that would intimidate many competent photographers. Location scouts, production managers, crews, studios, six-week shoots… No, Crewdson is no ordinary flash-monkey and the painstaking attention to detail is evident in the photos he makes that cleverly capture the gaps of life – what came before, and what comes after the shutter clicks is left to your imagination.
Unsurprisingly, Crewdson has exhibited all over the world, and his latest international collection is Sanctuary. Shot on the back lots of Cinecittà Studios in Rome, these photographs of old film sets, noticeably absent of people, reflect a state suspended between grandeur and ruin. Black and white images of decaying building facades; realities that never really existed, are haunting, evocative and imbued with a true sense of calm. And calm and collected after therapy and breakfast was how The Lab’s Justin Tyler Close found Crewdson when they spoke.
JUSTIN TYLER CLOSE—What were you doing an hour ago?
GREGORY CREWDSON—I was seeing my therapist.
JTC—Was it productive?
GC—I hope so. I think so. So you got me at a good point. I’m ready to reveal all my secrets.
JTC—That’s a good thing. What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Do you think breakfast is important?
GC—Yes I think breakfast is vitally important. This morning I dropped my daughter Lily off at school, and after that I had a coffee and a currant scone.
JTC—I want to talk to you about dreams a little, because when I look at some of your photography it often reminds me of a dark dream of sorts. Do you adapt some of your self-conscious thoughts to your conscious thoughts in your work? How do you usually come up with concepts?
GC—That’s interesting because my dreams are fairly uneventful. I come up with a lot of my images when I’m swimming – I’m a long-distance swimmer. I do open-water swimming in lakes, or in the bay, or the ocean. During the winter I swim in the pool, but wherever I go I make sure I have access to swimming every day.
JTC—I wonder what it is about swimming that helps you come up with your concepts – maybe it’s the feeling of floating…
GC—It’s also being submerged; it’s a womb-like state. During the day there’s always distraction so this is a context that allows my unconscious to emerge.
JTC—You’re not hearing anything or being anything; you’re just you. What were your childhood hobbies? Were you always into art or did you fantasize about doing other things?
GC—I didn’t really arrive at photography until later in life, when I was in college. My first love was always music.
JTC—That was a pretty big deal – you guys were selling out shows all over New York. What happened to The Speedies? Where did the band go?
GC—Like any post-punk, teenage pop band it’s a prescribed moment. That kind of music almost by definition has a short half-life. We had our moment when I was 16, 17 and 18. It was in the late-seventies and it was a great moment in New York and a great moment to be in a teenage band. I was one of two guitarists and one of two song-writers. Me and the other guitarist, Eric Hoffert, we wrote all the songs together. We wrote Let Me Take Your Foto.
JTC—That’s kind of funny, the title of the song…
GC—I know – that’s before I wanted to be a photographer. I’m sure you know that 25 years later the song was used for the HP Digital Camera ad campaign.
JTC—I didn’t know that.
GC—That’s the great end of the story. That song, 25 years later, was rediscovered by an ad agency and the original track was reformatted and used for the actual commercial.
JTC—Are you still talking with the band? Are you guys still friends?
GC—Yes. In fact just last Friday I went to see The Hold Steady with the other guitarist.
JTC—That’s great that you’ve remained friends, that doesn’t always happen.
GC—He’s the one I’m really good friends with – we’ve been really close friends since fifth grade.
JTC—I know you grew up in Brooklyn – what was your childhood like?
GC—I think I was a product of a very healthy, good, positive upbringing. I grew up in Park Slope in Brooklyn in a brownstone about half a block from Prospect Park. My father was a psycho-analyst and my parents were, I guess, very progressive. I went to Brooklyn Friends, which was an open-education school.
JTC—And then you went to John Dewey High School. Were you in the in-crowd or the out-crowd?
GC—In the late-seventies you were either in two camps. There were the Hitters, I guess that would be the equivalent to what Jersey Shore is now – it was the Saturday Night Fever kind of crowd…
JTC—The slicked hair and the tight shirts?
GC—That’s what it was. You were either that, a Hitter, or a Freak. I was neither. I was more like a hippy. And I barely existed in high school. I was in The Speedies and at that time I was a long-distance runner, I used to run marathons.
JTC—You clearly like endurance fitness with running and now swimming. That takes some patience.
GC—There’s something that goes hand in hand with some aspect of my work which is some sort of obsessive quality.
JTC—That makes sense, because your work is very methodical. It all seems premeditated, and I think that’s why so many people admire you and your work. It’s very easy for a photographer to adapt their style to someone else’s, because everyone and their grandmother has an SLR camera these days and can go out and call themselves a photographer. Your kind of work is probably the hardest because it’s so grand. You can look at any one of your pieces and think about what these characters were doing before the picture was taken, and what they might do after. It’s more of a story than a moment, I feel.
GC—That’s nice of you to say.
JTC—How did the concept for your photo series Beneath the Roses develop?
GC—In Beneath the Roses there are two very distinct ways of making pictures: the photographs that are on location and the pictures that are on sound stages. Essentially, all the interiors are on soundstages. The location pictures always start with me location scouting for the production. I just look for places that feel they could inhabit one of my pictures and it goes from there. I work very closely with the director of photography and location manager and a line producer. And then when I do the pictures on a soundstage, those ideas usually come from swimming, and then I work with an art director and start sketching out ideas for the image.
JTC—I’m guessing the photograph with the lady floating in the water, inside the living room was shot in a soundstage?
GC—Yes, that was the first one I ever did in the soundstage.
JTC—That’s one of my favorites and I love the girl with the flowers too.
GC—Oh yes, right. That was done in someone’s house.
JTC—So you just built a garden in someone’s house, they must have loved you for that?
GC—They did. So that’s part of the whole process. Now, the projects are so big we shoot the pictures as part of a production, so it’s like making a movie. You go for six or seven weeks on location and make a series of pictures with a whole crew.
JTC—Looking at your subjects’ faces raises lots of questions about who they are and what they’re thinking about. I’m curious on what kind of direction you give them?
GC—Well, as you’ve probably noticed, I’m interested in moments in between moments. I almost want to empty it out. So nothing is happening at that moment. By the time someone comes and is in the picture I know exactly where they’re going to be standing and their gesture, so it’s just a matter of trying to get that from your subjects.
JTC—Do you ever give suggestions to the people in your photographs about what they should be thinking about or a back story for their character?
GC—I say very little. We actually have a description that’s written. It’s not a screenplay or anything and it doesn’t give any motivation, but it says, for example, “There’s a sole man coming out of a house,” and they read that.
JTC—Do you do castings to find the right people?
GC—Yeah. But I don’t use actors, I tend not to anyway. I will find people on the street, or through casting calls.
JTC—Are there any artists you admired or influenced you when you were growing up, or when you first started discovering photography?
GC—The first artist that had a huge impact on me was Diane Arbus – I loved her work. When I was 10 years old my father brought me to the Diane Arbus retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, so that was very impactful. And I always love a wide range of artists and filmmakers and writers that I think explore the same intersection that I’m interested in. For filmmakers it’s a wide range like David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and then there are a lot of contemporaries now that I’m big fans of and friends with Wes Anderson and Todd Haynes.
JTC—Have you ever gotten into film? I’m sure many people would love to see a moving Gregory Crewdson picture.
GC—This has always been something of interest to me, and I have been in discussions about making a movie for some time, but I think I would only do it under the absolute right circumstances. I definitely wouldn’t be interested in making an art movie; I’d be more interested in making a larger scale movie. There’s always the possibility of that in the future.
JTC—That’d be great. I’d definitely be there watching. Tell me about your new black and white series, Sanctuary. Where were those photos taken?
GC—They were all in the back lot of Cinecittà Studios – that’s the historic movie studio in Rome where Fellini made all his great movies. So in the back lot there are all the collapsed old sets and that’s what those pictures are of. So they’re in some ways dramatically different from what I’ve done previously but of course, I think it ties together in the end.
JTC—I know you received a Master of Fine Arts from Yale. Is it too late to say congratulations?
GC— [Laughs] Well, yeah, it was a gazillion years ago, but I teach there still.
JTC—How do you enjoy teaching? Does it feel like you’re giving something back?
GC—That’s why I do it. I think it’s always great to be connected to the next generation of artists that come up and that’s the main reason I do it.
JTC—What exactly is the course you teach?
GC—It’s an MFA so there are 16 students in a two-year programme. It’s purely fine art so it’s mostly critique kind of stuff. I’m only there in the fall semesters and one day a week.
JTC—So that’s cool – you graduated and now you’re back.
GC—Nothing ever changes in life.
JTC—You mentioned you have a child?
GC—I have two.
JTC—Do you think they’re going to become artists one day?
GC—I hope not. Look, I love them and they should do exactly what they want to do.
JTC—Do you cover your house with art and inspiration?
GC—No, not really. But it is hard, because being an artist you’re used to putting all your energies into your work and I actually avoided having children until later in life, but it’s amazing having children and it definitely changes the way you see the world.
JTC—Do you think it’s changed your work?
JTC—I wonder how?
GC—It’s sort of indescribable in a way.
JTC—I guess you have to do it, to really know the feeling.
GC—I recommend it. You never really know how things change you but it does change your priorities, that’s for sure.
JTC—What are you working on right now? Other than hopefully doing a film…
GC—Well that’s one thing I’m in discussions about and the other thing is trying to figure out how to proceed. What’s the next body of work going to be and that’s a slow process for me, but the show just opened for Sanctuary in New York and now it’s opening in London in November.
JTC—Which galleries is it showing in?
GC—White Cube in London and Gagosian in New York and Rome.
JTC—We were talking about music before, and that must still have a big influence on your life. Do you play music on set during the shoot?
GC—It depends. If we’re on a soundstage then I would absolutely play music.
JTC—What would you turn on these days?
GC—I love Arcade Fire. And then I love Wilco and Radiohead… endless list.
JTC—How have you kept up with modern technology? Are you a camera junky?
GC—I’m not a technical person by any means but I have people around me who are. The Sanctuary pictures were shot completely digitally.
JTC—They’re so crisp.
GC—I know. It’s the highest-end digital camera that exists. It’s a digital camera that’s set up like a view camera with view camera lenses. So that was a big change. And then, of course, all of my printing – everything’s done in the studio now, so it’s all essentially digital. What we can do now would have been virtually impossible to do five years ago.
JTC—That’s refreshing to hear you’re not that much of a technical person, because I try to keep up but it seems impossible.
GC—That’s a big misconception about me.