Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

A Brief Encounter with Gregory Crewdson

by Steph Dooris

02 Dec 2012

American photographer Gregory Crewdson was recently in Australia to promote Brief Encounters, the new film about the making of his most famous series to date, Beneath The Roses. The film is a snapshot of the arduous labour and breathtaking detail Crewdson and his crew put into the construction of his images.

Crewdson is still coming to terms with the film's existence and admits that he never really expected all the recognition it has been getting.

“It has a weird history to it,” Crewdson explains. “About ten years ago, the director Ben Shapiro approached me about just shooting the productions and I agreed to it, and then he sort of continued to do it over the years. But I never really thought about it too much and I never really thought it would be a movie. I kept thinking it would be nice to have that footage. And then out of the blue, he surprised me and said that he’s finished the movie and it’s going to be premiering at SXSW in Texas. I hadn't even seen the movie until recently.”

Despite the initial reluctance Crewdson may have had toward the film, he considers it an important representation of his process. “Although it’s very hard to watch, I’m very thankful that the movie exists because it documents a very important period in my life and the making of these pictures and that will now become part of the story.”

As a photographer, Crewdson has always been interested in single images. “I never really think about what happens before or after my pictures. I just like the frozen moment in time,” he says. So for him the beauty of this film is seeing the whole process come to life onscreen and support the photographs he creates. “My favourite part in the movie, by far, is that it shows leading up to production and shooting the production, and then it dissolves into the picture. To me that’s really important because there is a difference between life and art so to see that up on the screen, that’s a really beautiful thing.”

The film will also provide Australian audiences with a preview of what they can expect from Crewdson's first Australian solo exhibit In a Lonely Place, which debuted at Melbourne's Centre for Contemporary Photography in September and will be on show at Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art early next year. In the exhibition, Crewdson combines photographs from bodies of work Beneath the Roses, Sanctuary and Fireflies. Crewdson wanted to balance the epic scale pictures of Beneath the Roses with his smaller-scale, more intimate images. “Although on the surface the different bodies of work all look very different, they do share some common core themes of kind of an interest in landscape and also the psychological,” Crewdson explains. These elements are intrinsic to Crewdson's work.

Belonging to a rich history of documentary photographers interested in giving image to the American vernacular -- he cites Arbus and Walker Evans as influences -- Crewdson feels attached to American stories. “I think [my practice] definitely comes out of an American tradition [...] I think the place is really important to art; it was made in a certain place, a certain setting. So the importance of the certain tradition is there,” Crewdson says.

“I've always been interested in the intersection of ordinary life and theatricality, and the artists that I admire the most all occupy that area. I feel like I’m sort of connected to that tradition, and am part of it. I don’t know exactly why. But I just know that’s my iconography.”

But that is not to alienate his other audiences; ultimately Crewdson's work touches on themes of loneliness, isolation and deprivation that are inherent to the universal human condition. “I think also it could be understood and appreciated in a lot of other cultures as well, like any other artwork would be,” he says.

What sets Crewdson apart from his predecessors is his use of cinematic techniques and post-production to create these haunting images of American-life. Although this may seem curious, given the influence documentary photographers such as Diane Arbus on Crewdson, he seeks inspiration from a number of realms and rationalises this as response to his current environment.

“The tradition of photography is always evolving so there’s a reason why Arbus, making those pictures was relevant to that time and has shaped other artists,” Crewdson says. “But the job of the artist is to take certain influences and make it their own. I’ve always been very interested equally in photography and movies so to me it makes perfect sense to kind of bring those art forms together.”

Brief Encounters and In a Lonely Place provide Australian audiences with an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with one of this generation's great American photographers. Crewdson not only captures the imagery of a nation, but the ethos of its existence.

In a Lonely Place will be exhibited at the IMA from 16 March–25 May 2013.