If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Sometimes dreams, like words on the tip of the tongue, are perched on the tip of memory…at once so vivid, now the weight of déjà vu. A similar encounter happens when experiencing a Gregory Crewdson photograph, he brings you blindfolded to scenes of floating fantasy, crime, and calm only to unveil them suspended in motion, as if it’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. Funny, we sat down talking about another sci-fi movie—Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was playing that evening in Great Barrington; Crewdson was psyched to see his favorite movie, yet again. It was the mounds of mud in the living room that got him, carrying over in his own work where the uncanny clings to the air like kudzu and invades nondescript suburbias.
Suburbia, a place so American yet Italian at its earliest form—Is it any wonder the photographer found himself inspired at the root of his dreams? Traveling with an exhibition, Crewdson spent some time in Rome where he asked for a tour of Cinecittà. In the suburbs of Lazio, the renowned film studio built by Musolini and sanctified by Fellini just clicked with the photographer. The emptied out and overgrown film sets were all he needed to frame; the jumble of facades and follies telling their stories, no need to interject with his own surrealisms. After over a year of planning and six weeks in production, Crewdson arrived atSanctuary, a series of small-scale black and white photographs, neutral and natural. In all their silence, the images speak to our own economic downturn and the chance to re-inhabit dreams.
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Richard Goldstein How did you find your way to Cinecittà?
Gregory Crewdson Well it was a strange set of circumstances, it was completely unplanned. But, I would probably say the initial impulse came even before making the pictures and that was after doing Beneath the Roses which for all intents and purposes was this enormous project, an epic project, that was seven years in the making and eight productions with many hundreds of people involved. I knew when that project was complete that I wanted to do something very very different. I didn’t know what it was that I wanted to do, but I knew it was going to be something much more organic and smaller scale. So, I was searching for a project. And as it happens, I was in Rome for a traveling show. I had always heard about the movie studio and its the mythic past. My friend Wes Anderson had made The Life Aquatic on the sound stages, and he told me these great stories about the place. So, when I was in Rome, I just asked to take a private tour of the studio without any expectations. When I went on to the backlot it was one of those moments that come few and far between, I saw the whole project in my mind’s eye—small scale, black and white photographs of the emptied out sets. I was completely struck just by the kind of fallen nature of this place and the sad beautiful aspect of the landscape. So then, it took about a year to get the necessary permission and move forward with the project.
RG How long were you in Rome shooting for?
GC Even though I was determined to do something different, it was very unnerving for me. Change is difficult. I had never photographed outside of this country. I very much consider myself an American artist coming out of an American tradition. So just the notion of making pictures in a new place was daunting. I had to go back twice to really be clear that this is what I wanted to do. And then, we were in production for six weeks last summer.
RG How did the Italian way of life affect you? Were you there long enough for it to effect your day?
GC Sure, there were many examples of that. Obviously, I was effected just by the sense of history and the sense of tradition there, but you also have to get used to a slower way of doing things. Probably the best example of that is when it became clear that I wanted to make these pictures. I actually wrote this very careful and considered proposal to the movie studio and FedExed it with all my books … Did not hear anything from the studio for close to a year, so I assumed that it wasn’t going to happen. And then out of the blue, I get a phone call from the studio with a very excited person on the other end saying, “Oh we just received your proposal!” And that gives you an idea about how things are run.
RG Very Italian!
GC A lot of lunches, a lot of espressos. I had to get used to that pace. I brought a very small group with me and then we had a Roman crew, this great group that worked on various productions in Rome. They knew no English whatsoever. That was an interesting transition, so we had to figure out a way to work together.
RG And what did you find, I mean how did you guys find a working medium?
GC Well, it was at first difficult because I was very clear in my mind I wanted these pictures to be very emptied out. One big decision I made early on was that I wasn’t going to use any lighting—there are a couple exceptions to that. So, we had a group of grips and electrics with essentially nothing to do for a good part of it. I wound up working with my camera man and digital coordinator, so it was the three of us for the most part, but whenever we needed something, we would walkie-talkie them. Essentially what we needed them for was making a camera stand if needed or doing wet downs, which we’ve done a lot of. We used a lot with fog machines, too. Those were the interventions that we used.
RG How was the process different than the more domestic pieces that you’ve worked on, the more suburban pieces?
GC Well, in terms of making the pictures they were in every way completely different, and it was very freeing to me. So I guess one of the main things is we shot completely digitally from beginning to end. For all Beneath the Roses and before, I used an 8 × 10 camera film and then scanned everything, so this was a much more freeing process. I shot many more vantage points and view points. So typically in previous work, I would essentially create a single image you know that was framed and considered months before initial production. In these pictures, it was almost like a return to photography for me. So I was working in a much more organic way.
RG And immediate maybe, fluid?
GC Yeah, much more immediate, much more fluid, much more physically engaged and that’s something that I had realized I missed. It was a great reengagement with the medium. And then, there are no people in these photographs. The other thing was that I made a decision not to change anything. I didn’t intervene with what was in front of me. There were already so many levels of reality and fiction and artifice and nature that I didn’t have to intrude on it anymore to make it more compelling.
RG Since there aren’t any people in the photographs, nature is the main character here. In that sense they are very real. In the catalogue essay, A.O. Scott said your work was related to documentary without the social reality of some of the more straight documentary photography. Could you speak a little to Cinecittà as a zone of escape and how theater, kept to the stage, is part of maintaining or defining one social reality, the day to day.
GC Yeah absolutely, the way I saw it was that I was doing almost the opposite of what my usual job was. Typically I would take ordinary life and make it cinematic, through a kind of cinematic production. Here, I was taking cinematic life and trying to make it ordinary. I did everything I could to neutralize the subject matter including not using lights, focusing on how things were falling apart, how nature was intruding on it. I saw my role as far more objective. I was very much conscious of referencing that whole history, that whole tradition of picture making. It was very hard for me to not think about Atget for example while making the pictures, or Walker Evans. These are photographers who I’ve always loved (my son is named Walker, for example) but they’re not immediately the references that people sort of associate with my own pictures.
One of the reasons I made the pictures in black and white was to reference that tradition. An interesting thing happened in terms of making them black and white, the pictures did feel realer. In other words, the sets feel more set-like in color because you see more of the texture and surface of things. But I really wanted the pictures to feel timeless—out of another place.
RG Also, they seem a lot like etchings because of the texture, like those old prints from the Grand Tour.
GC They do feel like drawings in a way or etchings. They also have this unbelievable, partially because of the kind of camera we used, sense of depth of field and detail, which is very important to me because every single blade of grass is in hyper-description.
RG Did you get the chance to walk through Pompeii or Herculaneum while in Italy?
GC Everyone mentions those, but no I didn’t. I would love to at some point. I love the idea that I was shooting for the first time outside of America in Europe, in Rome but on a set of Rome that is collapsing. So there are so many levels of reality. I don’t think I would have any interest in photographing the actual places. But I love the idea of this kind of hermetic world.
RG That sanctuary, that place apart. I was wondering how the news influences your work because some of the more extraordinary scenes seem kind of sensational. How does that element come into your work?
GC Well, one thing I was conscious of was that these pictures were relevant to the moment they were made in for me. As we were preparing for these pictures, I was thinking about collapsing empires and banks closing. We’re in a very different reality than we were, and I couldn’t help but think that that was relevant to the subject matter in these pictures—the fragility of these things the basic metaphor of these grand structures being held up by scaffolding which is to me one of the major metaphors that runs through the pictures, the scaffold, the false entrance way, the false façade. To me ultimately yes, there are pictures that I think are relevant to our larger culture but also relevant to, like all my pictures first and foremost, their psychological nature—that’s how I read them. So I see them very much as a projection of my own fears and anxieties, so in that way, I see them in the end serving a very personal agenda. What is interesting to me, is that despite the fact that I did everything I could to challenge my own aesthetic, in the end the pictures reflect an extension of my central fascinations and interests. So they are a testimony to how you can’t get away from yourself. That you are who you are as much as you try to challenge that.
RG Can you tell me a bit more about your favorite film? We were talking about Close Encounters.
GC Well I think that in your mind there are two lists. One is the more objective Great Films, sort of the agreed upon list. The more interesting list may be the Films that Changed Your Life list … where you are a different person before and after seeing the movies, and that’s a smaller and much more subjective list to me. I would say Blue Velvet was a film that I initially saw when I was in graduate school while I was at Yale and that had a profound, and I think obvious, connection to my pictures. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was a film that almost in retrospect hugely effected my work, particularly the whole notion of building the piles. The obsession with constructing these totemic structures, which to me is a great metaphor for the making of art. You know, those kind of compulsions following your obsessions. So Close Encounters of the Third Kind is definitely right up there for a film that not only do I feel connected to, but I feel connected to the central character’s quest. And then of course there are many other films including Hitchcock’s.
RG And were you always doing photography even from the beginning when you were young? It was always with a camera?
GC Well, I came to photography somewhat late. But I would say my earliest exposure to photography was when my father brought me to the Diane Arbus retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972 which was when I was 10 years old. And I’m still not quite sure why he brought me to that show because it wasn’t a family practice to go to art shows. But I think that was my first awareness of the power and the psychological resonance of pictures. My father was a psychoanalyst, and I think that I completely associated with him bringing me to the show. But it was not until college that I really took my first photography class, and I immediately responded to it for many reasons. I wanted to be a psychologist and follow along in my father’s footsteps, but I had undiagnosed dyslexia that, I think, I still struggle with. Following any academic route was almost impossible for me. So my first exposure to pictures just felt right. Single images, you know. And then I’ve always been interested in movies and narrative and literature, but in the end I think first and foremost I am a photographer; I think in terms of images.
RG What do you have in the works next? Are you going to be working in the states or going back out of the country?
GC Well, it’s a little bit of an open-ended question at this point. I mean I just finished this body of work. I’ve spent the summer here in Massachusetts and done most of my life’s work up in this area. So I’m thinking whatever I do, I’m going to try and make a connection somehow between the previous work, Beneath the Roses, and this most recent work. I still think I need time to resolve that.
RG What do you think you came out most with from the experience in Rome?
GC It was a magnificent adventure and brought a sense of renewal for me. I’m also just very happy about challenging myself and putting myself in a new position and just learning the lessons of the pictures themselves. I know that one way or another, I’ll apply those lessons to whatever I do next. I’ve always said every picture you take is one less picture you have to take. Whatever that means. (laughter)
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.