|Gregory Crewdson, The Shed, 2013|
For the first time, the Photographer’s Gallery in London has given three floors of exhibition space to a single artist. And to mark the occasion, they have chosen Gregory Crewdson’s creepy, visually sophisticated, photographs from Cathedral of the Pines. As I seemed to do everywhere I went in London last weekend, I started at the end. Which, in the case of Crewdson’s photographs, made the experience even more unsettling. Beginning on the second floor, I was thrown by the early images in which naked women with aging bodies stand in deliberately staged postures contemplating something to which we as the viewer have no access. “What on earth is going on here?” I kept asking myself. Soon realizing I was not going to figure out what had happened at this scene of the crime, I started searching for clues of what the photographs were doing.
|Gregory Crewdson, Beneath the Bridge, 2014|
I began to realize that my inability to understand why the figure was standing naked, surrounded by nature and often near a decayed or abandoned structure, but showing little concern or anxiety despite the apparent threat was indeed the point. Even before thinking about where they are placed, the bodies themselves are unsettling: they are often aging, deformed, misshapen, and some of them even have the trace of death. And then, we realize, the figures don’t belong in the wilderness of nature in which they find themselves. Clearly, something has happened, but it is as through it happened elsewhere, in a different narrative, in a different life even. Perhaps the figure is a ghost, or a fantasy, that has wandered into the wrong time and space? The displacement in the photographic image gives it a sense of temporality it can’t otherwise have. Because photography is about stillness and death, about a moment frozen in time. And yet, in Crewdson’s images, photography captures ongoing narratives from different eras, different places and spaces. This is what makes them so unsettling. The water flowing at the bottom of a landscape is like oil or another thick glutinous fluid, churned up by a photographic production process as it is transformed into something else. Again, the water gives away the time lapse photography that is clearly part of the production process, and simultaneously, sees photography do something technically out of its reach: transform the everyday into the supernatural, mythical or otherworldly.
There is a lot of nakedness, but very little vulnerability in these images. The figures are in command of their bodies, contained and in contemplation, making them closed off from the world they are in. They are not bothered by the presence of the viewer, and neither are they threatened by their environment or the others in their image. This contemplation through posing speaks to the performance, the staging of the mise-en-scène that makes the photographs like films (again the temporal longevity captured by the photograph). Apparently, Crewdson uses a crew of 15 produce images, a production process that again, pushes at the boundaries of the photographic and its claims for truth, for a kind of evidence of that which it sees. Clearly, there is much more happening in Crewdson’s images than can be instantaneously articulated.
From a formal point of view, the perspective is also unsettling. The images are placed on the walls at an uncomfortable height, a little low, so that we look down at the grass, the river, or the snow in the foreground of each image. They are, I realize halfway through the exhibition, placed as if they are windows for us to look through. We are thus standing inside the structures, looking into those that entrap the participants in the image. Windows, doors, mirrors, even water in the form of rivers are all conventionally used to open out the image, both to the spaces that cannot be included within the frame, and to the world beyond that of the photographic (or painted) mise-en-scène. And yet, in Crewdson’s images, mirrors and other reflective surfaces are always used to close down the space – there is no way out of even the opening in the forest in which the scenes are staged. If something can be seen through the window, it is either more of the same, more of what is inside, or it is a forest, out of which it is unlikely there will be a way out. When the figures are inside and we look through windows at them, it’s the same. They become the image in the window through which we look, but of course, it is a window that opens up to nothing. And yet, to reiterate, everyone is at ease, in contemplation, unthreatened. And so, these spaces of entrapment are simultaneously places of safety and protection.
The photographs are also highly political, even though at first glance they may seem like fairytale fantasies. Because in the middle of the forest, the structures are always abandoned, cars look as though they are broken down, vans look as though they have been appropriated as homes for poor people. The world in the image is always that of the lower classes, even when the landscape is classless. The iconography of the environments – trailers, underneath of bridges, wooden houses, old cars, outhouses – tells of poverty. Again, the unsettling placement of the viewer in relationship to the images gradually reveals itself as replicated within the photograph. This is the American Dream gone horribly wrong. Even if the locations are placeless, they reek of homes and families, people who never connect, and who are isolated in their contemplative reflections. If ever we thought that the American dream was within reach, these photographs remind us that it was only ever a fantasy.