Gregory Crewdson by Bradford Morrow

BOMB 61 Fall 1997
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Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, from hover series, 1996, 20 × 24 inches, silver gelatin print. All images courtesy of Luhring Augustine.

The first photographic image I ever saw by Gregory Crewdson was of a seagull perched in an unlikely forest at the edge of a pool whose surface was blubbery, laden with what appeared to be lice, beer cans, an Ivory soap bottle—the jetsam of contemporary America. Green leafless plant stems sprouted optimistically forming the miasma. Several sparrows stood on burnt tin cans, and a moth hovered nearby. Was the poor gull going to drink from this white verminous cesspool? Had it already? The beak was agape, after all, and the bird appeared as if it were about to retch. Why was its eye so deathly, jaundiced? Was this an allegory of the end of nature? A black comedy? A silent sermon? And what was that I could see through the amber thicket? The outlines of a perfect suburban house, serene and dreamlike in the distance? Were the people who lived at a blissful remove from this scene of innocence and squalor responsible somehow for dumping their cruddy debris here, for infecting this otherwise bucolic glade?

Later, long after I understood my questions were unanswerable, the image remained in mind, continued to bother me, provoke my imagination. And as it did, my incipient respect for Gregory Crewdson’s artistry—the photograph caused me instantly to regard its maker with awe—grew into something more complex. I began to recognize Crewdson as one of those rare artists touched by vision; someone whose work truly disrupted my sense of the known. Who was this guy, and why was he messing with my mind? No matter: after that day at Luhring Augustine gallery when I looked through many of his colorful and astounding prints, Crewdson had gained a new admirer.

We met nearly a year later, and have now become friends. His bio simply does nothing to prepare the uninitiated for these fantastical, apocalyptic, utopian, droll, gothic, paradoxical, magnificent images he creates. Born in 1962, middle-class background. Grew up in Park Slope, son of a psychoanalyst (father) and “movement analyst” (mother). Attended Brooklyn Friends, John Dewey High School, SUNY Purchase, grad work at Yale. Brother is a nature writer. Sister studying to be a psychiatrist. Well, maybe there is something here: analysis, nature, movement, speculation.

Wherever Gregory Crewdson is, as they say, coming from , matters less than where he is, through his unparalleled dioramic and fabular images, going . We spent an afternoon that continued into a summer’s evening discussing his possible points of origin and destinations. Here is part of the verbal journey.

Bradford Morrow I’d like to address the narrativity of your photographs. If one thinks of them as image-stories, they are intriguingly transgressive insofar as you only deliver the final scene, and therefore compel the viewer to create the story that precedes it. What is your relationship to the notion of narrative or story?

Gregory Crewdson I’m interested in the question of narrative, how photography is distinct from, but connected to, other narrative forms like writing and film. This idea of creating a moment that’s frozen and mute, that perhaps ultimately asks more questions than it answers, proposes an open-ended and ambiguous narrative that allows the viewer to, in a sense, complete it. Ultimately, I’m interested in this ambiguous moment that draws the viewer in through photographic beauty, through repulsion, through some kind of tension.

BM You mention drawing a viewer in through repulsion. I do find that your work is, at all times, steeped in paradox. It is constantly inviting and combative, violent yet serene, beautiful and ugly. I’m curious about your involvement with that moment which becomes the image, because I know you construct the scenarios that you photograph. In the process of constructing them, surely you’re involved in the storyline itself. For instance, the photograph of the fox in the forest with the grape arbor. These delectable, nutritious grapes are hanging down even as the poor fox lies on its back, dead as a doornail. The background is a visual hint or ghost of urban serenity. When you’re constructing images, when do you have your initial sense of what the image will be, how does that process work? Is there a prefigurative story that develops in your mind? Do you know how that fox arrived in this forest?

GC I’m a romantic. I think. I’m a very intuitive artist in terms of the final image. I spend upwards of a month creating every image. We were speaking of paradox; I’m drawn to photography by some irrational desire to create an image of a perfect world. I strive to create that perfection through obsessive detailing, through a weird kind of realist vision. When the mystery of the photograph emerges, my irrational need to create a perfect world meets up with some kind of failure to do so. This collision between failure and compulsion to make something perfect creates an anxiety that interests me.

BM Have you ever intuited where that desire to create something perfect derives from, in you, personally?

GC I think it has something to do with repression. (laughter)

BM Ah-ha!

GC My father is a psychoanalyst and in the early years had his office in the basement of our brownstone house in Brooklyn. I would put my ear to the floorboards above his office and listen to his sessions, trying to imagine what was going on, creating a mental image of what was happening downstairs.

BM A visual image.

GC Yes. Not quite knowing what he was doing but knowing that it was a secret.

BM That’s fascinating, because a viewer of your photographs senses that he or she is invited to he a voyeur. Your viewer stumbles upon an impossibly symbolic or Aesopian or pre-Adamite scenario that’s …

GC Aesopian?

BM Aesopian as in out of an Aesop’s fable. Because your work is fabulous, it’s fabular. One particular image that you created, I find almost fundamental. After I saw it, it became part of my own visual landscape: the one of the birds who seem to have created a circle of spotted eggs, like a little Stonehenge of the Birds. But then in the background lurks this suburban set-up: houses, a couple of trees, and a ladder going up into one tree for no particular reason, then some mountains behind. Tell me, do you identify with the birds or something as the maker both of the scene and as the maker of the photograph? Are you envisioning a fable here? Is there a “moral to the story?”

GC That’s interesting. I don’t know if there’s a moral to the story, but I intentionally created a sense of ritual that is left as a question. This ring of eggs occurs as some kind of formation, perhaps a paranormal event and, certainly, there is the possible emergent meaning. To go back to an earlier question that you asked about paradox, in all of my photographs I’m very much interested in creating tension; between domesticity and nature, the normal and the paranormal, or artifice and reality, or what’s familiar and what’s mysterious. We could call that an interest in the uncanny: the terrifying and the familiar. I intentionally ground all these mysterious or unknowable events within a recognizable and iconic situation, which is the domestic American landscape. Ultimately, I would describe myself as an American realist landscape photographer. (laughter) Despite the artifice in the pictures, I’m not interested in revealing the artifice as much as creating a believable or credible world.

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Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, 1995, 30 × 40 inches, C print. 

BM I find these worlds disconcertingly credible. I’ve been there, I’ve seen those birds. I didn’t see them make that circle but what’s so powerful about the image is that I believe I’m stumbling upon something I’ve stumbled on before—and not in a dream. This is not surreal work. It has super-real qualities. You’re not just the photographer, actually, you are a sculptor and a storyteller. Your photographs really go so far beyond seizing an image out of the world. In fact, you’re not doing that at all, you’re beginning with a narrative, you’re listening in on a conversation downstairs. In a way, the photographic element is almost tertiary. How do you relate to the ladder or the bird or the house or the water tower or the mountains? What do you invest personally as you’re constructing the scene that becomes the photograph?

GC Everything. I’ve been asked many times, what’s your relationship to nature or the suburbs? I’m not that interested in either as subjects as much as I’m interested in using the iconography of nature and the American landscape as surrogates or metaphors for psychological anxiety, fear, or desire. Everything in the photographs: the birds, the iconography, the images, and probably most directly, the actual casts of my body parts, deal with my own psychology. They are used as tropes to investigate my interior life. I want to take familiar tropes like the suburban home or aspects of the landscape and project onto them some kind of personal meaning.

BM I love the reductive or democratic aspect of the work, which makes equal the suburban home with the eviscerated animal, the blistered calf with fluttering, impossibly iridescent butterflies. There’s an equalizing that you do which is combative, therefore very American. The work is ambitious and ambiguous. I think the viewer must try to set aside any notion of beauty or ugliness. In fact, I’d love to know if you have a definition for the word ugly or if you have a sense of the word beauty. I’m really interested in this democratization, because you define yourself as an American artist. Although American is so undefinable in and of itself. How do you view your responsibility to the viewer and how do you view the viewer’s responsibility toward the image? Or is responsibility even the right word?

GC I’m not sure what my responsibility is to the viewer. Originally, one of the reasons I was drawn to photography, as opposed to painting or sculpture or installation, is that of all the arts, it is the most democratic insofar as it’s instantly readable and accessible to our culture. Photography is how we move information back and forth. But I also want the work to have a visceral impact that draws the viewer in through photographic beauty, lushness, vibrant color. Perhaps they’re democratic. I think ultimately they’re quite optimistic. I never see them as being ugly or repulsive.

BM How would you define ugly? Visually, can you imagine something you find repulsive?

GC In general?

BM Yeah.

GC Yeah.

BM What was it?

GC While I’m thinking about that, I will say that I always set out to make the most technically, formally, aesthetically beautiful photograph I can.

BM A decaying calf with vines growing out of it, with thorns growing out of them—this to you is …

GC It’s a beautiful image. I mean it’s disturbing for many reasons; it’s a cast of my leg as a corpse. But, ultimately, if it wasn’t a compellingly beautiful image, I wouldn’t be interested. I’m enthralled by bringing it to life as a beautiful, hopeful image of transcendence.

BM I’m drawn to these images in the same way that Ralph Waldo Emerson was drawn to open the casket of his first wife. He was moving the gravesite and he looked at his first wife and he later looked into the coffin of his five-year-old son, Waldo, who had died of scarlet fever. I think we’re a strangely squeamish culture, some critics have thought it was either a nightmare or that he really didn’t do it. There’s evidence, in fact, of other people in the 18th and 19th centuries re-opening the graves of their beloved, almost as an empathetic performance or a statement of their own continued connection with these people and the connection to their own mortality. When I look at the lushness of death as it’s described in your work, and the beauty of these bonnets of butterflies and these grids of grapes and ropes and strings, I see it all as a marvelous embrace of humans and what we go through in a lifetime.

GC I can answer your question about what’s horrible to me. Ultimately, probably what scares me most is reality. (laughter) When it’s a representation, when it’s separate from the world, it more effortlessly becomes poetic or beautiful.

BM Do you think to embrace what you fear most is an aspect of being an artist?

GC Definitely.

BM Also, in your work there’s a magnificent collapsing of time; the corpse is a flower, the carrion is, in fact, the beautiful butterfly. It really is just a matter of time before it gets reintegrated and grows again. That’s often so present in the work, there’s a quality of life and death being simultaneous.

GC That image we spoke of earlier, the transformed leg, locates that moment where the body is incorporating itself and becoming one with the landscape. There’s a confusion and collapsing of the boundaries that hold the body apart from its surroundings. The vines are growing into the leg and sprouting thorns.

BM They’re growing into the leg?

GC Yeah. So there is this mergence between the body and nature.

BM That merging of the grotesque and the sublime is always in the foreground of the photograph. Then, as the eye seeks refuge in the image, it goes back through the amber light; and very often, you put in these serene images of a house where you’ve lived, a barn you remember, a garage or a scene of domestic tranquility. That combination of foregrounding the nexus of sublimity and the grotesque and then putting in the normal, as it were, the everyday …

GC Well, the everyday we strive for, but we don’t actually achieve that either.

BM I think it makes for an incredibly kinetic experience as a viewer, and that goes back to the whole notion of storytelling and narrative. I’m sure you know the installation by Duchamp in Philadelphia, Etant Donnes. Was Duchamp an influence at all?

GC On this most recent work, an absolutely significant influence. Duchamp worked on that installation in absolute secrecy in his guest bedroom.

BM Secrecy was part of the whole aesthetic experience.

GC Exactly. He worked on that piece for the last ten years of his life. I’ve always been captivated by that image. Essentially and interestingly enough, I have only seen the installation through photographs. A few years ago, I had a chance to view the actual installation and I decided against it. It’s like my relationship to my work where I’m only interested finally in the image, not the installation. And I wanted only to know the installation through an image. At some certain point, partially because I was haunted by that photograph of the Duchamp piece, I wanted to incorporate the body into the landscape.

BM Have I accidentally hit upon the most important visual influence?

GC Absolutely.

BM (laughter) That’s amazing. I remember seeing it in Philadelphia for the first time. You approach the peephole through which you have to look, like a young Crewdson with his ear to the floor, and look through this chink in the artificial barn door and see the image of a naked woman, her legs spread, her hair, just a hint of her chin, a lantern up in the air. I wanted so much to move to the right so I could see her face, and of course, Duchamp’s peephole does not allow that. This sublime frustration enhances the metaphysical implications that Duchamp was after, which are that we can’t wholly see the Other. I find with your images that there’s a sense of wanting to move physically to the left or the right and see a hit more, but you’re not going to let us and that’s the way life is. This is one of the great acts of intuitive brilliance in the work, it seems to me.

GC Okay, there’s a lot to respond to. In terms of Duchamp, early on in my first efforts to include the body, I tried using mannequins. Those first images were absolute failures. At some point. I realized it had to be personalized through my own body. Once I made that clarification, it became clear that I had something at stake, that it was my body, my corpse in a sense, and it all started making more sense. Even though these photographs are made in my studio, to me they’re voyeuristic. I’m drawn to photography ultimately through some voyeuristic impulse. The camera gives you an alibi to search into places in your psyche, to unmine the secret mysteries in your life. In the recent photographs, as you suggest, I purposely created a kind of voyeuristic peephole to make it appear like you’re looking in on a secret world.

BM Such as in your photograph of, I don’t know, (laughter) a pile of turquoise scarabs in a vine forest with a black oval?

GC It’s a halo.

BM Oh, floating halos, of course, religious for sure; you also present grids of vegetable, mineral or botanical units, repeated units, like butterflies, or grapes, and the viewer has to wander through that grid. Maybe these grids which you establish give us a sense of stability and the confidence to enter into the scene a little deeper. All the plentitude that you offer and the richness of the color are inviting. We trust you so we strive deeper into the image and that’s where you get us in trouble.

GC I love that.

BM I want to talk a little more about the notion of you as a sculptor. The photograph of the image is a communicative device insofar as it brings the image to us, so we don’t have to go, say, to Philadelphia. You are a multidisciplinary artist. Can you tell me about your work as a sculptor? As diorama?

GC Well, ultimately I do everything so wrongheaded every step of the way. I’ve figured out how to do everything by mistake. You see the perfect images here—but if you came to my studio, it’s an absolute chaotic mess, completely disorienting and confusing. Yes, the work definitely has connections to sculpture and installation and film, but what I’m most interested in is the final picture. I don’t consider myself very good at any particular craft. The only reasons I make installations are because I have an image in my mind of how I want the final photograph to be and I just have to create it to make it look like that. It never, ever looks like what I have in my mind. Something, as I said earlier, always goes wrong.

BM Have you ever killed an animal?

GC Never.

BM Let’s talk about your hover series. At first glance, it would seem to be a radical departure from the earlier work. Gone is the lush color, the controlled studio construct. Now you’re in New England, photographing in black and white, apparently from a crane, or certainly from an altitude, a neighborhood, but it’s clear that Crewdson has been there first. It seems to me that you’ve gone to the opposite end of the spectrum to explore precisely the same human problems. Again, the American myth seems to be at play. Also, the notion that something has happened, something we can’t put our finger on: why, wherefore, what will be the ultimate consequence? There seems to be a very dangerous activity at play. Whether there are humans in the landscape—for instance this photograph of a perfect circle in a backyard—I can’t see any human beings, all I see are their artifacts. It’s almost as if a neutron bomb hit the place, but nobody was at home anyway. It’s all the detritus of our lives, and yet there is this mystical circle, reminiscent of the birds. What is the circle to you?

GC It goes back to my interest in ritual. There’s a lot to speak to in terms of this departure in the work; but to address your question about the circle: an article concerning Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which is my favorite film of all time, suggested that the circle is the perfect metaphor for romantic obsession. For me, the circle is a metaphor for obsession, some kind of possibility or non-possibility.

BM Emerson wrote that the eye is the first circle.

GC Wow, I like that.

BM He also said, “There is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning,” which is ultimately the definition of romance. Because when we feel romantic about something, we believe in its perpetuity, that in every moment’s end, there’s a new beginning.

GC Exactly, that carries through all my work. I should speak about the project more because on the surface it is such a dramatic departure. At a certain point I was making photographs of my body as a corpse, photographed in this extraordinarily claustrophobic and horrific fashion. I felt like I needed, for various aesthetic and personal reasons, an absolute change. So I consciously worked to change everything in my production. I went from large scale color work produced in my studio, making dioramic constructions, to photographing outside in an actual place, incorporating the community. I went from photographing in color to photographing black and white, photographing from a very low angle to photographing from the vanishing point of an elevated crane.

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Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, from hover series, 1996, 20 × 24 inches, silver gelatin print.

BM You have gone from first person to third person narrative.

GC Exactly. But ultimately, what wound up happening is that despite every effort to change all aspects of my production—you can’t get away from yourself. So I found myself investigating similar themes concerning defamiliarization, the uncanny and probably for me, most interestingly, the relationship between nature and domesticity, particularly some kind of disturbance of the landscape and disturbance of normality. What’s most important in this work is the point of view, which is an elevated point of view from an alien perspective looking down on these everyday events. I photographed from the elevated point of view for a number of reasons: one, I liked that sense of voyeurism, looking in upon the world; the other is I liked that free-floating perspective, where it forces the viewer to ask quietly, where am I? The impossibility of point of view.

BM In this new work you seem to be an omniscient narrator as opposed to the earlier work, the “I am here, in the forest. This is my leg, I’m hurt.” In this sense you are more transgressive insofar as you’re not simply all-knowing but you’re omnipotent, because clearly you went into a community and convinced people to change their everyday behavior, change the way their street looks. This fellow here in this extraordinary photograph is sodding the street while his neighbors look on and a policeman in the background watches. Behind all that is Crewdson at work again as the sculptor and omnipotent narrator.

GC The man laying sod is like the bird in the other pictures. He’s a surrogate for me.

BM The birds are surrogates for you?

GC Yeah, in some way. Let me use this picture as an example. I had this image in my mind of a man obsessively attempting to sod the street closed. It’s optimistic, to join one lawn to the next. Part of the project in this work is to convince this neighborhood to take part in this ritual. A lot of the events unfold from this floating perspective. It’s like bearing witness to an event that is on one level very ordinary, sodding your garden or planting rows of flowers, but exaggerating that ordinary event and making it somehow irrational. Sodding the street closed or planting flower beds down the middle of the street is an ordinary event gone inexplicably wrong. One of the great things about being an artist is that you have an image in your mind and you can do it. Or you can try to do it. So we sodded the street closed and I got in the elevated crane, and I was lifted and floating over this scene. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world to hover.

BM I’m fascinated by how it worked out, that you’re becoming a bird in essence. A bird’s eye view has turned all the humans in the photograph into the stuffed birds of your earlier work. They all have their hands in their right pockets. They all look terribly posed.

GC That’s true, they do. I never noticed that.

BM They’re ashamed of one hand or the other. Who knows what that hand was doing? And the fellow in the middle diligently placing the sod, I see it as such a continuation of the earlier work.

GC I was drawn to this neighborhood because it seemed to come right out of my photographs. I wanted to do a suburbanization of Robert Smithson’s Earth Work. So for this photograph I knocked on this woman’s door. She wasn’t home, so I wrote a letter to her and said, “I would like to create a perfect circle of mulch in your backyard and photograph it. Do you mind?” And the next day she left this message on my answering machine, I’ll never forget what she said, “Do what you have to do.” That was amazing to me. I went back that Sunday and she wasn’t home so I worked with the landscapers and we created this mulch circle. I got in the crane, found the perfect perspective and shot. We cleaned it up and she was still gone. I never met her.

BM Are you consciously aware of thematic, or schematic, continuity in your work, that the world itself has become a kind of diorama for you? What does that mean in the long run—the world as a kinetic diorama?

GC It’s sort of a Connecticut diorama. (laughter)

BM As a movable, inedible feast. How does that work, what does that mean?

GC I’ve never really made much of a distinction between photographs made in the studio, or in the outside world—I think those are false distinctions. Essentially I’m interested in photographic beauty, in narrative, the photograph conveying a kind of mystery, a strangeness and a recognizability. I don’t care how I get there. That is inconsequential.

BM I’m reminded of one of my favorite ideas of Emerson’s, which is that the world is the externalization of the soul. Since he is an American philospher/artist, and since you have such a sense of Americanness in your work, how would you respond to that idea?

GC That’s a beautiful statement, and of course it’s quite narcissistic. But as an artist, I fully admit to being narcissistic and a pathetic fool as well.

BM King Lear goes to Concord. It strikes me that really you are still Gregory Crewdson with his ear to the floor upstairs trying to find out what the hell people are thinking.

GC Or what I’m thinking.

BM Or thereby realizing what you’re thinking. It’s so far beyond dreamscape or surreality—it is a fresh reality.

GC That’s what I’m interested in—there’s a paradox in that, as I said earlier on, in a weird way I do consider myself a realist. But finally what I’m trying to do is use realist detail to describe something psychological.

BM To reverse Emerson’s aphorism, the soul is an internalization of the world.

GC Wow. That’s good.

BM I think when I see your photographs, I feel like I’m in the photograph. I internalize it so instantly that there doesn’t seem to be a distinction much between me and it. I relate to it very much as a myth. We live myth. And once you believe myth has a certain value, then everything has a mythic quality. The worlds that you create or manage are really mirrors of the worlds we all create and manage. There’s a great line, “A novel is a mirror walking down the road.” It seems to me that a photograph made by you is also a mirror walking down a road.

GC That’s nice.

BM What’s your sense of your lifetime project? Do you have one or is it a day-by-day of finding out things?

GC As artists we walk around with a single story to tell, some kind of central narrative. And I think the struggle is to attempt to reinvent that story over and over again in different forms and to visualize that story through, in my case, photographs, and try to make it new each time.

Bradford Morrow’s fourth novel, Giovanni’s Gift, was published this spring by Viking, and is forthcoming in paperback from Penguin in January. He edits the literary journal, Conjunctions, and lives in New York.

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Originally published in

BOMB 61, Fall 1997

Featuring interviews with Gregory Crewdson, Lorna Simpson, Allan Gurganus, Louis Auchincloss, Marie Howe, Rilla Askew, Rupert Graves, Andrew Blanco, and Paula Vogel.

Read the issue
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