The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Photographer Gregory Crewdson and filmmaker Ben Shapiro discuss their new film Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters.
Ben Shapiro’s documentary Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters challenges the brevity of Gregory Crewdson’s photographic encounters. The film situates each picture within the husk of Crewdson’s elaborate process, which has been described as “operatic” and likened to a film set. While films and operas unfold through time and sequence, Crewdson’s are frozen within the simplicity of a single moment. Their statement is no less potent, and their germination no less extraordinary. Each “moment” relies on the technical expertise of a sizable crew and the suspension of local goings-on. In this case it really does take a village, but these villages in northwestern Massachusetts have grown accustomed to Crewdson’s presence. The manifold interactions between the film’s subject and his subjects are yet another silent factor responsible for the depth of each brief encounter with Crewdson’s camera.
Though his photos often depict fictive, sometimes fantastical scenes, they are also a revelation of the figures who inhabit them. A cleaning woman, a junk-pusher, a newborn baby. The only direction the artist offers to his subjects is “do less.” While Crewdson is never featured in his photos, each is another attempt to tell his central story. A loose self-portrait materializes around his countless portraits of others. Crewdson’s story has been refined, distilled from the surreal extravagance of his earlier domestic scenes to the charged vacancy of his recent work at Cinecittà. This arc is also articulated through the reduction of the figure—once dominant and in detail, the human subject has disappeared altogether from Crewdson’s latest work. This does not mean that his story is losing any primacy. Rather, it is shifting its shape so as to reinvigorate a familiar story with the novelty of a new language. The film makes us witness to the dynamism of the artist’s otherwise invisible process. The rawness and humility of Shapiro’s camerawork refracts the focus onto the visual magnitude of Crewdson’s work. Like so many of the framing devices and windows in Crewdson’s work, Shapiro’s film carves a peephole for the viewer, located at the bottom of a voyeuristic cascade. We are given a privileged view of a private process. Both filmmaker and film remain strategically inconspicuous. Shapiro enters the film through skill rather than cameo, his absence allowing for a more directly observational portrait. This one-man crew artfully enhances the viewer’s encounter with Gregory Crewdson’s brief encounters.
Part 1: Gregory Crewdson
Wendy Lotterman Brief Encounters documents the evolution of your work across a long stretch of time. In many of the eerie domestic shots from your earlier series, Twilight, the figure takes up a considerable portion of the frame. In later photos, particularly those in Beneath the Roses, the figure becomes dwarfed, more remote, rendered in lesser detail. In your most recent work at Cinecittà, the figure has disappeared completely—instead we see the ghost town of a town that never really existed. Have you zoomed out as far as you can with respect to the figure, or is there something to follow?
Gregory Crewdson Wow, I never really thought about it that way. For sure, the earlier pictures from Twilight are more blatantly narrative, more extraordinary or spectacular. At that early stage it was the first time I ever used cinematic lighting and the first time I ever worked with a production crew. I was intoxicated with the possibility of using all of this production material. As I made the transition to Beneath the Roses I definitely made a conscious decision to make the pictures less story-driven. They’re more grounded in reality, and more kind of everyday in-between moments. I also wanted to use the lighting in the same way—slightly heighten the picture rather than make it more dramatically cinematic. It went from an overt narrative to something much more psychological. The pictures became much more about setting and place.
WL That’s clear with Cinecittà.
GC Also in Beneath the Roses. It’s very much about small figures in larger landscapes.
WL I’m curious about place, because in one photo you seem to have removed the Massachusetts title on a license plate. Were you trying to de-localize an otherwise site-specific shot, to make it stand for other places?
GC Another good observation. I want the pictures to feel like everywhere but nowhere. I also want them to stand outside of time. I don’t like to have any indicators of either a particular place—like Massachusetts—or of contemporary life. There’re no contemporary cars, there’re no cell-phones, there’re no brand names. I work really hard to not have any of those indicators in the picture. It’s very important to me that it’s in this particular place, but not important in the way that a documentary photographer would take a photograph in a specific place. I’m much more interested in using the places and the people as a kind of backdrop.
WL One of the most interesting moments in the film was your exchange with an old woman as you were walking into a laundromat. You told her you were scouting for locations and she said, “This is a functioning place.”
GC Yeah, I love that.
WL It’s such a curious moment. You do, in a way, shut down functioning parts of the town, so I was wondering how you react to her comment?
GC Well I think it was really funny that that was captured on film. It’s one of those give-away moments that at the time might have seemed like just a funny one-liner, but in the larger sense I think it’s emblematic of the whole process. There is this way that the pictures themselves function but don’t function. The place functions and doesn’t function. The pictures, function to tell a story but they don’t function to tell that story.
WL I wondered about that. People always use the word “narrative” when describing your photos. Rick Moody cited this as the reason why so many writers are drawn to your work. But you mentioned feeling fortunate to be without the burden of narrative structure, or without some kind of through-line to keep afloat.
GC I really do consider myself a storyteller. But I think that if I tell any story, the nature of the story is very particular. Unlike other sort of conventional narrative modes, there’s no beginning and no end. It’s just this one moment in time. Because of that it’s almost by definition impossible to tell any story that resolves itself.
WL I was fascinated by post-production. You said that every photo was an attempt to create and capture a perfect moment, but—particularly for the shot with the woman and her baby in the motel—it’s actually many moments superimposed upon one another, collaborating on a perfect moment that never happened. Does post-production change the stakes of getting that perfect moment when you’re behind the camera?
GC Well, it’s still impossible. In a certain way I think that the fact that they’re composites is even more truthful to the whole process. Because, if you notice, when I’m making pictures the camera never moves. It’s a static frame. When we’re on location we always shoot from light to dark, and what we’re trying to capture is something that exists in-between moments, that we then try to condense into one moment. If I could capture it in one frame, I would. But the 8×10 camera is very crude. It’s an old-fashioned camera and the image is flipped. The negative is 8×10 inches, so on the one hand it gives you enormous amounts of information, but on the other hand a large format camera like that has very little depth of field. The way I figured out how to use it was to condense or to composite different focal lengths. When we’re shooting—particularly on a sound-stage—we’ll shoot for middleground, foreground, and background, and then composite the different layers later. That’s why my actual prints have this sort of hyper-description. Everything’s in focus at once.
WL You say that photography is linked to failure, which is itself a catalyst for solutions that are sometimes more interesting than what you would get if the shot were perfect on the first try. Do you feel like post-production changes your understanding of photography as failure?
GC No, because I think representation is really about failure. Compositing is just one more layer of failure. It allows you to do certain things, but even in doing them you lose something else. At a certain point you settle for what it gives you. But it never is what you imagined it to be. It becomes something other than that, it takes on a life of its own.
WL I want to talk about the in-between. You shoot at dusk, which is an in-between time of day when people are shifting spaces from public to private, and you’re fascinated by the space that separates fact and fiction. Is the yellow stop-light in the Brief Encounter photo another iteration of your interest in the in-between?
GC Oh yeah. In fact, if you go through the book, a lot of the pictures that take place on main streets—the light is always on yellow.
WL Do you just like the color yellow?
GC No. It’s about in-betweenness. It’s not green or red. And, believe it or not, to do that you need someone who works for the department of motor vehicles, some official who actually has to come onto location and flip a switch to make it yellow. Continuously. So when we’re shooting we don’t have to wait for it to turn yellow, someone just turns it on and it stays on yellow for an entire shoot. The thing that the movie doesn’t make 100% clear is that for every single shoot that we’re on the street there are street-lights, so an electrical truck from ConEdison comes and turns off all the lights. The reason being that it’s the wrong color temperature for us. So we actually shoot without the lights on, and then later in post-production I’ll digitally put the lights back on the lamps.
WL You were talking about your father who is a psychoanalyst and how eavesdropping on his sessions as a kid was inspiration for your photography. Is the perspective that your photos take that of somebody who isn’t supposed to be seeing what they’re seeing, just as you probably weren’t supposed to be hearing what you were hearing?
GC I think absolutely, for sure. I think that my pictures—all of them in one way or another—are voyeuristic. And I sort of continually use windows, and doorways, and mirrors. In almost every picture there’s a window or a doorway. Particularly in the sound-stage pictures there’re so many framing devices in terms of architecture. You’re aware that the subject is being framed, and so you’re peering in on them in one way or another.
WL How does that translate in your recent project at Cinecittà?
GC Oh, same. Again, framing devices, passageways. One door leading into another door. But they’re all sort of soft openings because they’re set pieces. So it’s one door into another door into another door. Into nothing, essentially.
WL In the stage direction for one of your pictures you wrote something about fluorescent lights buzzing. It was interesting that you considered sound while composing shots that would obviously not include a sonic element. Given that you think about sound, what was it like to hear the film’s score?
GC In terms of writing the descriptions, I work really closely with my assistant Cosi. So I think that buzzing of the fluorescent light was her flourish. For me, with the movie in general, it’s just very odd to see the pictures contextualized. The documentary material, and the music, and the voiceover—it becomes something very different from just a frozen picture hanging in a gallery or something. My favorite moment in the film is by far the transition from when we’re shooting on location—you hear the actual sound of the shutter and then it transitions into the picture itself. To me that’s really beautiful. I find that the most moving thing.
WL At that point, after the transition when we hang on your photos for a few seconds, I became really aware of the instrumental music in the background since nothing else is happening. I’m curious as to what it was like to work with Ben, because you’re such a micro-managerial director yourself. Did he direct you? Or was he just a bystander?
GC He was a bystander, for sure. And when he was shooting on production, I honestly was not aware of him on any level. I was just so absorbed in the making of my picture. He’s just one man with a camera, as opposed to a whole production team. So I wasn’t aware of him at all. Of course that was different when I was driving around doing location scouting, or when he was doing the interviews. That feels different.
WL So he was also able to assume the role of somebody who is kind of eavesdropping. A silent witness.
GC Exactly. For me, location scouting is such a private moment, such a private thing, that I probably felt him the most then. Obviously, because he was in the car with me driving.
WL When you were at Yale the program was steeped within the tradition of documentary photography—going out into the world to capture a truth. Your work is a decided departure from that; you tend toward fictions. Was there any friction between Ben’s process and yours, his actually being within the tradition you strayed from?
GC There was definitely tension. But I think tension is always good, especially as a young artist. You sort of have to push yourself against these established conventions. Now I’m the director of the same department where I was an undergraduate student, but I still remember those times when I was a student, and it was not easy for me. I think that’s part of the whole process of developing as an artist.
WL Did you two collaborate on the title?
GC We were tossing around different ideas and somehow that came up. I think my assistant Cosi was actually the first person to mention it, but it made absolute sense in terms of the context of the movie, because it obviously references that picture—Brief Encounter—but it also references the very nature of what my pictures are: these moments, in-between moments of these brief encounters. And, of course when Ben would come up and shoot, he would also have brief encounters with me. And so it all just plays off each other really nicely.
WL Did the title make you aware of all of those relationships, or was that already something you were thinking about when you chose to put “Brief Encounter” on the marquee.
GC Well that marquee was actually an old age home. I had the choice of using any title of any movie, and I remember just writing hundreds of titles down of different movies. I kept coming back to Brief Encounterbecause of its connection to my work.
WL Maybe Ben should screen his film at that old age home, and then you can take another shot when the movie is actually playing.
GC Well, across the street there is now a movie theater, and the movie was screened there for me before it came out.
WL At 7:30?
GC At 7:30. Of course! No, it was actually during the day. I’ll never forget it, because it was such a hall of mirrors. We made the picture on that street, and now there’s a movie called Brief Encounters that was shown at the movie theater.
WL You mentioned that your photos are a place for you to confront personal fears and desires. You don’t figure into any of them explicitly, but do you see them at all as self-portraits?
GC I think of them all as self-portraits, but not in a literal way. At the very core of it the pictures are about these moments of being alone and somewhat disconnected in the world. The people in the pictures are searching for some kind of connection, usually through light. And I think that I’m doing that myself. I’m creating these moments to try to find a moment of peace, or grace, or some kind of connection to the world. And so I think that the subjects in my pictures are kind of surrogates for myself.
WL You claim that every artist has one central story to tell, and each piece is a reiteration of that story. This makes a lot of sense in terms of fiction, but I’m not sure what that means in the documentary field.
GC Well I think you have to ask Ben about that. Let’s put it this way: there was a mutual trust in terms of the process. I mean he came to document the process over the course of many years, and I never once asked him to see anything. The earliest stuff was taken in 2001, but the majority was shot over six years. That’s a very long time, and I never once asked him to see any of the footage. Because number one: I didn’t want to see it; I think I would have found it distracting. And number two: I wanted to give him the space to make the thing he wanted to make. And that’s what he did. Brief Encounters is the coming together of his story and mine. Any other person would’ve made a dramatically different movie, and he could have made a hundred different versions with the footage. But he made this version. Of course it’s just one version, and there’s no direct line to truth. It’s his subjective take on this thing.
WL Is there anything you realized about your own process from having watched the film?
GC Yeah. I mean to me the most amazing thing is like, I look back at the whole thing and am startled with the kind of disbelief that we were ever able to do it. When I look at it it’s like, Did we really do that?
WL I sympathize with that disbelief.
GC I’m the guy who is supposedly making these pictures, and I’m like, We did that?! So in that way I’m really, really thankful that the movie exists. It documented this whole period of my life and work. I think it will live on to change the way people look at the pictures. For better or for worse, it will. The movie has taken on a life of its own, and it will forever influence peoples’ understanding of my work.
Part 2: Ben Shapiro
Wendy Lotterman Gregory characterizes his work as a departure from the tradition of documentary photography in which he was educated at Yale. Your film Brief Encounters is a documentary, obviously falling within that tradition. What was your experience of documenting his movement away from the very medium used to document that movement?
Ben Shapiro First off, I think there are definite qualities of documentary in his photos, especially the exteriors. They give you a chance to look at those towns and communities in a particularly acute way, because the pictures are so sharp and detailed. They contain so much imagistic information. His process comes so much from experiencing and being familiar with those places, so the photos have a quality of observing this very real space. But I think your question is interesting—you’re asking whether there was a tension between my documenting and his process. I’ve filmed a lot of artists, musicians, painters, dancers, and it’s always challenging shooting a documentary. In a way this isn’t so different, it’s just another kind of creative process.
WL Right, except that you’re both behind cameras. You’re both directorial, and his shoots are much like a film set. So in some sense there were two layers of that.
BS It makes it more interesting. I’m interested in photography and filming, so I like to watch what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. I’m sure some of the detail is a reflection of my own interest in that kind of filmmaking process.
WL How is the film influenced by your relationship to your subject, and your subject’s relationship to his subjects? Distilling six years into 70 or so minutes requires heavy editing; I’m curious about the choices involved in your particular portrait.
BS I have a personal history with that community, too. I was born in a nearby town before moving to LA. We would go back and visit in the summer and wintertime. So that whole area holds some kind of particular interest and mystery for me. It was so wildly different and exotic compared to what I was used to in California. His involvement in that place gave me a chance to involve myself.
WL You include some really interesting glimpses of the locals. One of my favorites was with the woman outside the Laundromat who tells Gregory “This is a functioning place” when he’s location scouting.
BS As a documentary filmmaker, things like that are gold. You want the moments when people reveal something surprising. Sometimes you realize you get those things as it happens, and sometimes you don’t realize until later. I love the scene that follows when he goes behind the Laundromat and walks around a vacant parking lot. He’s looking at the trees and talking about the sense of place while the camera moves around him. It’s so solitary. The place is a combination of something banal, and deeply compelling. I’ve always been fascinated with places left behind.
WL I guess the banality allows space for Gregory to make it extraordinary. He kind of needs that room to move.
BS Well it’s banal and it’s not. It’s really kind of interesting, the detritus around the edge of the town.
WL So, I asked Gregory this same question, but I’d like to hear your take. It seems like over time the figure has gotten smaller and more remote in his photos—
BS Yeah, and then disappears altogether. They also start out more fantastical with those unexplained lights from high places. The figures became smaller, stiller, definitely more refined. When artists are younger they pitch things in a more deliberate or explicit way, and then they kind of back off from that and make it subtler. He’s an example of that. People get an idea and then they realize over time that they can tell it in a quieter way.
WL He claims artists have one central story to tell, so perhaps he’s finding quieter ways of telling his. Gregory talks about his role behind the camera being inspired by eavesdropping in his father’s sessions as a kid. Each story he tells is an opportunity to work out his own anxieties and desires. I was curious whether you felt similarly, and if so how this film fits within that model.
BS Boy, that’s so hard. My father is also a psychologist, and I didn’t eavesdrop, but I remember going to his office and he had a waiting room with separate doors, a separate exit door so the people wouldn’t see each other. I’m not sure if that idea has particularly informed my feeling about filmmaking. As a storyteller you’re always thinking about how to make dramatic shapes and scenes within the movie as a whole. The creation of something has its own natural dramatic arc. People get this idea, this inception, they struggle to build the idea—especially in Gregory’s case, there’s this question of whether he’ll be able to do it.
WL But he always does. He talks about failure but it’s never featured in the film.
BS I guess I shot one or two productions that he didn’t print. There’s one in the film that I know he’s not so fond of.
WL Will you say which?
BS I don’t feel like I should. I’m a little protective that way. I think it’s up to him to talk about those things. But his crew on Beneath the Roses was so confident and capable that there was never a time when the whole production collapsed. It’s like movies—there are production managers, and locations people, and all that. It’s very well organized and systematic. It has to be when you’re investing that time and effort.
WL Did you have a crew?
BS It was just me. That was really helpful for the kind of work I was doing. Even when you’re just three people, which is small by a lot of people’s standards, you’re still a film crew. It was different because I was just one person, just Ben filming again. People accepted it that way. They took it much less seriously. I blended in.
WL Gregory said that he assumed the role of the voyeur through the perspective taken in his photos—that of somebody who shouldn’t be seeing what he’s seeing. How did you feel about your role on the set?
BS I really felt like it needed to be very observational. There was already so much going on, so many levels, so I didn’t want to add another by appearing in the film. There’s me, there’s Gregory, there’s Gregory talking to me, there’s Gregory talking on set, there’s me on that set. There were enough variables without me getting involved in the story. It does have that peculiar thing where he suddenly turns to look at the camera, to talk to me. That’s a result of having spent so much time on the set. I’d be standing next to them filming, and he would just turn to me and start chatting.
WL People often cite the way Gregory’s photos invoke an invisible narrative that precedes and follows the single moment in the photo. In a sense your film answers that question, in terms of process instead of narrative. We see what happens on set before the shoot, and what follows in post-production. How do you think seeing the before and after is going to change the way people see each individual photo?
BS You mean what happens in photoshop afterward?
WL Yeah. Each perfect moment is really a couple moments whose composite is a moment that never existed.
BS I think the film will clue people into his cinematic process. Russell Banks described Gregory’s sets as being operatic—all these different things come together to create a moment, which exists in this very real space. The photos, especially the exteriors, are similar to site-specific theater, except that they only exist for a moment. Instead of an audience, there’s a camera. It’s frozen. I hope the film would enrich the viewer’s understanding of that, and of the transformation his images make. You see these communities as they are, and you see how the photographs have visually transformed them. The photos are interpretations, which is also what documentary is about.
WL I’m curious about the process of coming up with a score. It seems like a fairly tall order to pair sound with images that speak so loudly.
BS The idea was to incorporate a little bit of the quality of his images. On some level you want the music to be dramatic, but there’s nobody really suffering. What we chose is not melodramatic, and it’s not eerie mystery music. It does, however, evoke some of those tones, and perhaps even evokes the scores in Hollywood movies, which the editor and I discussed as a way to highlight the cinematic nature of Gregory’s images. Music with movies is kind of funny. You can have a piece that you think will work, and then you look at the picture and you just know it doesn’t. The things that work just click into place and you know it.
WL Laurie Simmons talks about wanting to measure for how long people look at Gregory’s photos in a gallery. One of the film’s strong suits is that it makes you look at them longer. There are moments when the film will idle on a particular photo, how did you decide the length of time each would be shown?
BS It’s a weird judgment call. Up to the point of finishing it I was like, Is it too long, is it too short? Music kind of clicks, but this is different. You know this is too long and you know this is too short. In-between there’s a kind of grey area where you just kind of take your best stab at what you feel is right.
WL You usually work with musicians—how did you come to Gregory?
BS In 2000, 2001 I was working for a public television series called Egg that was about the arts. I was assigned to shoot one of those pieces about Gregory. I had seen his pictures before, and didn’t really know that much about him. I spent a weekend with him when he was working on the flowering beanstalk photograph, so the earlier footage in the film is from my time at that shoot in 2001.
WL I want to talk about the title. A photo is by nature a brief encounter with any given moment, but your film actually reveals that these encounters exceed the brief moment, and are longer than one might assume. I’m talking about your encounters with Gregory, and his with that whole area of Massachusetts. It’s an interesting title both because it complements the film, and because it doesn’t.
BS It’s funny to talk about brief encounters in regards to a biographical film that you’ve shot over the course of six years. I think it’s more about the viewer’s encounter with the photographs, and then his encounter with these moments, which he creates, photographs, and which then disappear. The places remain but the scene only comes together for a moment. It highlights the distinction between how the movie is and how his photographs are. A lot of the movie is handheld, verité, one-man band shooting. It has a certain elegance, but it’s a very different look and process than his. To some extent that was deliberate. If the stuff that I was shooting on his sets looked too much like his shots, when you went to the photographs it would be less of a surprise.
WL Were you a different filmmaker in the last of the six years than you were during the first?
BS Not really. Though I’ve become very aware of how the visual sensibility of documentaries has changed in the past five years. Everyone’s doing it now. People shoot a video from their phone. That wasn’t the case like in 2005. You had to get a video camera.
WL How does that change your own visual sensibility?
BS I know that I can get a different quality of image because of the new gear that’s around. I shot all of Brief Encounters on video. A lot of it was DV, which is this now defunct kind of standard-definition video. Now there’s HD. You can see certain scenes that look really grainy and noisy, especially shooting in dark. That’s something that’s really changed in cameras—they can shoot in much lower light with much less noise. That was a huge factor in this shoot, because Gregory shoots in dusk. We weren’t able to show much of what happened after the shoots, because it was dark. If we did that now, it wouldn’t at all be an issue.
WL Has being a bystander to Gregory’s process for such an extended period of time changed the way you operate behind a camera?
BS Making a film about someone who is so visually attuned to the world allowed me to heighten the sense of my own movie. When I was out location scouting with Gregory, or even on the sets, I was looking more carefully at the details and the atmosphere of things. When you’re with someone who is observing that way, and you’re trying to represent that visual observation yourself, you become more attuned to those visual qualities. That’s one reason that he interested me so much as a subject. We share an interest in visual details and how they combine to create a whole. The way that makes a whole is radically different than mine, but the interest and the sensibility underlying it is similar.
Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters is currently screening at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Wendy Lotterman is a poet and artist living in New York City. She graduated from Bard College.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.