Crewdson, Beneath the Roses

Gregory Crewdson might not need an introduction, and if he does, I’ve written about him before. In short, he makes large-scale staged photographs. The photos are set in suburban and small-town America, and depict everything noir in a sort of perpetual twilight (indeed one of his books is called Twilight): loneliness, alienation, apathy, resignation, mystery, contemplation, confusion; you catch my drift. The production is huge, so are the prints, and the price tag on them, but the books are affordable enough that I’ve bought his latest, Beneath the Roses.

The first thing to note is that the photos really are huge, and made to be that way. They’re taken with cameras that record an enormous amount of information, which would be artistically irrelevant if it weren’t for the fact that the photos are constructed so that small details matter, and small details are only visible on large prints. It’s hard to discuss these photos online because web-size reproductions simply don’t do them justice. Not only is it hard to find acceptable jpegs of my favorites from the book, but even when they aren’t haunted by digital artifacts, the pictures, as above, are simply too low-resolution to show every important detail. In the picture above, of the boy under the bridge, there are three slightly intimidating men/boys lurking in the foggy background; you can barely make them out in a web-sized reproduction, yet they change the meaning of the picture.

Merchant’s Row, above, is the first of the 49 plates in the book, and is one of its finest. The colors are wonderful. A pregnant woman stands frozen on the zebra stripes at an intersection; apart from her and one car waiting for the perpetually yellow lights — yellow lights in intersections is one recurring theme in the book — the scene is devoid of people. The street recedes into early morning fog in the distance. Across the street is a pregnancy center, but you can’t make that out in the small reproduction here.

Alec Soth has said that photographs can’t, or at least rarely tell a story. There is no beginning, middle and end, there is simply the moment. You can’t tell a story in one single instant. Unlike narrative art, like literature and movies, a photo can’t tell a story by itself; it’s like tearing a single sentence, page or chapter from a larger novel or short story, but even that metaphor is weak, because even a sentence can show a progression in time or character, but a photo is forever a single moment — there’s no past, present and future, there is only the present. You can begin to tell a story by assembling a sequence of pictures, or combining them with text, but Crewdson does neither. The pictures in Beneath the Rosesare united by theme rather than by story. Instead, Crewdson uses the photographic medium’s great deficit, which is also its strength, namely that it captures a single moment precisely, rather than a sequence of moments approximately. Crewdson’s pictures don’t tell a story, they evoke a story, and likely a different one in each viewer.

Crewdson’s pictures are often compared to movies, both for their large-scale production and for the look of the end product. The one sensible observation in the introductory essay by Russell Banks is that Crewdson’s pictures resemble movies, but are unlike movies in that they can’t and don’t tell a story: instead, they’re open-ended, they invite the viewer to imagine a story for themselves. According to Banks, this makes them less passive than a movie, because in a film, the audience’s imaginative liberty is taken away as the story is laid bare in front of their eyes. Literature, on the other hand, gives you the story but leaves you to picture it, while photography in the Crewdson style gives you one visual moment and invites you to both imagine and picture the rest. Thus, according to Banks, Crewdson’s audience is less passive than the audience of a movie, even an art movie. I’m not sure of the extent to which I agree, but it’s something to ponder.

Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai), (1993).


Another way in which Crewdson’s pictures are unlike movies is that, while they mimic their look, they are tableaux rather than screenshots; they make no attempt to look like they’re taken from a larger narrative. It’s less as if you took a single frame from a movie and more as if you stopped time, as if the single moment could have lasted minutes or hours. Everyone is static. There is no movement to speak of; the actors, especially those far from the camera, might as well have been realistic dolls. This is part of what I miss in Crewdson’s pictures: a sense of life. I want the characters to live. I’m ok with getting to see only a single instant, in fact I like it that way, but I want that instant to feel as if it’s part of life, not as if it’s part of a museum installation. I want staged photography that looks slightly more like real life; I’m ok with artificial lighting, weird expressions, contrived situations, to a certain extent, but I’d love to see some movement, some signs of life. The emotional power of these pictures would quadruple easily, I think, with just a little hint that the moment before and the moment after the shutter was fired wasn’t perfectly identical with the moment captured.

Jeff Wall, in some of his pictures, achieves this. (In others, he’s just as static as Crewdson.) In A Sudden Gust of Wind, above, we get a sense of movement, of dynamism, of the moment captured being unique, different from the one before and the one after. The photo is staged. The photo below is also staged, a reenactment of an exchange Wall observed on the street, but it feels more like a genuine moment, and consequently, the emotional punch of the photo is increased. I understand that Crewdson is depicting more subdued moments, of quiet despair, contemplation, and so on, but human beings don’t turn into statues the moment they get sad or contemplative.

Jeff Wall, Mimic (1982).


But back to Crewdson. The pictures in Beneath the Roses are divided between landscapes, often with humans appearing as small details rather than as the main attraction, and interiors, where the camera is closer to the protagonists. The interiors are built entirely on soundstages, while the exteriors are shot on location, albeit with heavy lighting and direction. It shows: the artificiality of some of the interiors is simply too much.

In Blue Period, above, an elderly woman stands naked in her bathroom. What appears to be menstrual blood is flowing down the inside of her thigh. (Yet another detail that makes the picture, but is invisible on the web.) The digital clock on her bedroom table says 11:57. Of course we wonder: what’s going on here? In Twilight, some of the images were overtly fantastical, but in Beneath the Roses, they evoke rather than show the inexplicable. In the best pictures, the effect reminds me of Haruki Murakami: Murakami is well known for his magical realism, but my favorite book of his, Norwegian Wood, is realistic, without any fantastic elements, but through the prose and the mood, it feels magical; it’s almost as if you’re waiting for something strange to happen, but you aren’t disappointed when it doesn’t. The mood is enough.

Technically, most of the pictures are impeccably composed. The point of view is chosen perfectly and the elements in the frame balance each other out just the right way. When you view prints that are large enough (and they are in the book), the way you first take in the whole and are then drawn to the little details that matter, works well. As mentioned, that doesn’t work as well online, because the resolution simply isn’t there. The photos do look very artificial, because of their lighting, their focus, the static subjects, the eerie hypersharp front-to-back focus that Crewdson achieves through his view camera and digitally compositing several images to create the end result. They evoke, as others have mentioned, movies, but also hyperrealist paintings. I wouldn’t be surprised if the pregnant woman in Merchant’s Row was painted. The artificiality might be “ironic”, but it’s also tiresome. Visually, the photos are beautiful, but they’re also cold. It’s an almost analytic beauty. The color palettes, carefully balancing the natural light at dawn or dusk with many dozens of artificial lights of various sizes, are usually very pleasing to the eye. Like in much contemporary photography, the ugly is aesthetized and made into something beautiful — and unlike some, I don’t see this as necessarily dishonest, unethical, or, well, ugly. Like in Stephen Shore’s photos, there’s a quality of hyper-reality to the scenes simply due to the enormous detail, but unlike with Shore, there’s simply so much of it, and every detail is so perfectly placed and exposed and revealed that sometimes, but not always, it’s too much.

I wish I had Gregory Crewdson’s budget and team. I envy him. I really do. I bet he has a bunch of fun thinking up the scenarios and then making the pictures happen together with his light crew, his casting people, his camera operator and director of photography (!), his actors, and so on. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his mode of working per se, so long as its limitations are known; you can’t get reality from fiction, but then again, if literary fiction can be more true to reality than documentaries, couldn’t photographic fiction? Shouldn’t we value photographic fiction for the same reasons we value literary fiction? Yes, we should. But what I’d do with his budget is this: I’d come up with an idea. I’d build the scene every bit as rigorously as Crewdson. I’d micromanage just as much as him. I’d put a hundred lights in the scene, I’d use a huge camera that could almost capture the atoms in the nose hair of my actors. But! Then I’d do what Crewdson doesn’t dare or doesn’t want: I’d introduce spontaneity.

I’d have someone run through the set. I’d have someone kicking and screaming and directing anger at the set to give an authentic rough look. I’d have the actors actually doing the things they’re statically mimicking doing in Crewdson’s pictures. I’d have people moving, doing things. Yelling at each other. Improvising. Making up dialog, actions. I’d have them leaping, walking, standing, spitting. I’d have people live in the interiors for a few days, to make them real. I would let the actors decide where to stand, and what clothes fit. I’d rather take a thousand frames and choose the right than take fifty perfect ones and meld them all together for absolute perfection. I want real emotion, I want spontaneity, dynamism, movement, action, happenings. I want a moment to be unique; it should be impossible to take the exact same picture a second later or a to have taken it a second before. This might have made the pictures sillier, less ironic, more cluttered, more technically imperfect, but I’m convinced they would pack more emotional punch and feel realer and more important. They would say something more.

But I’m not Gregory Crewdson. He’s saying something with these pictures — and like all mediums, photography is at its best when it says something that cannot be said in another medium, like writing, so in a sense this review is trying to say the literally unsayable — and what he’s saying might not fit with my proposed methodology. My pictures, if I made them as described above, wouldn’t be Crewdsons. So what is a Crewdson, really — what’s he trying to say?

There are some common elements running through many of the pictures: intersections with yellow traffic lights; streets empty except for one or two figures; cars with open doors; people digging in the ground; large mirrors, often showing people that are off frame, only visible in the mirror; the glaced-over, apathetic facial expression, even, as in one of the pictures, when a couple are outside naked, fucking, on the ground on the outskirts of a suburb or small town. Figures are small outdoors (in a web-sized picture, the aforementioned couple would be so small as to be almost invisible). Indoors, they’re closer up, but just as apathetic. If their expressions convey anything, it’s loneliness, resentment, resignation, at the happiest, wonder.

Greg Crewdson, from Twilight, his previous book. Another naked woman interrupting an everyday activity, here, a family dinner. The most shocking thing isn’t the naked woman but the lack of reaction from the other characters. And even that isn’t all that shocking, once you’ve seen a few Crewdsons.

Many are rejected. Many are naked. Often the two go together. In one image, a couple lies naked on a matress in the back yard of a suburban home, as if banished from the house. In another, a woman lies naked from the waist down on a dirty matress in the woods, while a shirtless man is sitting a little behind her, back turned against her and against the camera, watching a river. In a third, a woman lies naked in a bath tub, alone, and in another, a woman sits looking into a large tripartite mirror inset into a wall, a table full of makeup and beauty products in front of her, the mirror displaying her dismayed face, and the central of the three mirrors also reflects a naked woman off-camera. The naked woman — often old and ugly — making a dramatic entrance into an everyday evening setting in a suburban home, is a recurring device or theme with Crewdson. A woman standing naked in the open doorway of a trailer, a schoolboy (as evidenced by his backpack and clothing) staring transfixed on her like some modern-day Aphrodite (or maybe he’s just a horny 13-year-old and she’s naked and showing off), the two of them reflected in a large puddle of rainwater in the foreground, say. The aforementioned trick with someone appearing in a mirror, but otherwise being off camera is another staple. Often the two are combined.

Clearly, he has a vision. A pretty specific one, too: he’s said that every artist has one story to tell, one they keep telling over and over, which may or may not be true in general, but certainly is for Crewdson, who is often criticized for doing the same thing over and over. (Which isn’t far off: at least with Twilight and now Beneath the Roses, the themes and technique are the same. The difference seems to be that the magical and inexplicable is toned down more in the later work, and the aspect ratio has changed from 5:4 to 3:2). It’s a bleak America Crewdson imagines, one where wonder seems to be an emotional high and resentment, resignation, sadness, loneliness and quiet contemplation seem to be the emotional average. It’s easy to put it down as too depressing, but who says Crewdson is trying to give us the complete picture? I doubt it. Not long ago I praised Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger for its character portrait, all the while noting that it is the bleakest novel I know of, certainly the bleakest I’ve ever finished. Delivering a bleak and depressing message is not in and of itself grounds for criticism.

I wish I had found all my favorites from the book in decent-quality jpegs online, because then I’d be able to point out the breadth of the work. It’s narrow, to be sure, but maybe not quite as narrow as the pictures in this post suggest. One picture shows a little shack in the woods, suburban homes in the background, and an adolescent boy standing beside it, facing a little lake or a large river — all in lush greens and blue-greens. That image is beautiful and could signal something a little optimistic. On the other hand, there is the hardened man who sits in his socks in a chair in a living room that looks like it’s been wrecked by a tornado, staring into empty space, or the elderly man who might as well be staring into empty space as he watches tv in a dressing gown, a younger woman in the kitchen in the background, perhaps his daughter. Then there are those pictures that don’t seem to be all that bleak except in the context of the other images, such as the picture of a mundane smalltown supermarket in the evening, with people buying things and packing groceries into cars.

It’s impossible to make pictures even remotely resembling Crewdson’s or Hopper’s without a mention of Nighthawks.

Together, they make up, not a narrative, but a series of open-ended moments that are mostly characterized by solitude, mental or physical. The pair of people who seem most closely connected are actually the naked pair on the matress in the back yard, and even they seem to — and this is obviously just one possible interpretation — have been thrown out of the house. Still, they, along with a few of the other pictures, do hint at a partial resolution of the loneliness that permeates Beneath the Roses. It isn’t impossible to imagine that there is some kind of contentment or even a hint of pleasure behind some of the expressionless faces, either. Their inexpression is easily mistaken for discontent in context, but might perhaps also be legitimately interpreted as reasonably happy, but not overjoyed.

There’s no doubt that most of the pictures contain, or even are, beauty. Some of them, if not all, do leave me feeling cold, impressed by technical mastery, maybe even pleased at the color combinations in the same way one might be about an abstract smattering of colors on canvas, but in the end, they’re more demonstrations than emotional works of art. Like the old paintings they recall, there is simply too much of some things and too little of the right things, the things that create emotional reactions. It’s beautiful, and getting lost in the details is wonderful, but look at Edward Hopper’s painting above, which you’ve probably seen before: the economy of it is astonishing. Hopper achieves so much with a few strokes; in comparison — and it is an unfair comparison — Crewdson wastes hundreds of megapixels worth of resolution without creating the same emotional connection.

A few of the plates are banal and could be left out. Some are gorgeous, or do the aesthetization of ugliness well, or both. Maybe the coldness and artificiality is entirely deliberate: but in that case, I wish Crewdson would tone it down. Even if he didn’t infuse his pictures with more life and spontaneity, at the very least he could try to avoid putting the life-draining fakeness of the images on display. If an artist wishes to disturb me, I’d like for them to do it earnestly; and if it’s “ironic” disturbance, then it will either fall flat as not very disturbing at all, or it will simply be fakery. There’s little worse than something that tries to be disturbing or controversial but fails (not least because that kind of art usually is a single-trick pony that relies only on the controversy to create any value or emotional reaction). There’s also little, in my opinion, that’s worse than taking entertainment that’s already fake, imitating it, drawing attention to the fakeness of it all, and then standing there smugly. If this is what Crewdson is trying to do with his Hollywood aesthetics, he’s one arrogant fucker, so I choose to believe it isn’t. I choose to believe the occasional failure to make anything genuine is not entirely deliberate.

Despite the criticism, it is a worthwhile book. A little repetitive, but when the repetition is as gorgeous as it is, who’s complaining? Especially the exteriors/landscapes are wonderful. Of the 49 plates, cutting it down to around 40 would have tightened it, but overall, it’s still good. The pictures in this post, as I’ve said, don’t do this stuff justice because of limitations of resolution. The pictures in the book are a lot larger, which makes for a better experience, and I’m sure that viewing Crewdson’s exhibition prints — which are over 2m on the largest side (something like 89 by 58 inches) — would add another layer of detail and meaning.

As a book

The book cost me $50 including shipping. Here in Norway, at least, hardcover books regularly cost more. Considering this is a large format photo book, I don’t think $38 (w/o shipping) is an unreasonable price. There’s not much of a “famous photographer premium”. As a bonus, even a second or third printing edition will likely be worth a lot more in five or ten years — though I buy photobooks to look at, not as an investment. The photos themselves are roughly 36.5 cm x 24 cm, which is large enough to see the detail, but more DPI wouldn’t have hurt, in order to bring out even more. There are 49 “plates” (photos that are part of the series), in addition to a bunch of sketches and “production stills” in the back of the book. There are around 140 pages — the page opposite each plate is blank save for a number. There’s also, as mentioned, an introductory essay by Russell Banks, which I didn’t find especially perceptive or interesting.

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