CAN 5 Research point 1.1

Do you think there is more to Gregory Crewdson’s work than aesthetic beauty? Do you think he succeeds in making his work “psychological”? What does this mean? What is your main goal when making pictures? Do you think there’s anything wrong with making beauty your main goal? Why or why not?

Speaking to John Southern in SCI-Art (2016), Gregory Crewdson says he has an interest in the “forbidden or secret”. He is not interested in the before or after of an event, but aims to make the single moment “as mysterious and beautiful as I can”. He wants the images to feel “ordinary and familiar yet outside of time”, “ordinary but aged down, slightly musty…” He says it is important that everything “feels ordinary and not spectacular” … he’s “trying to create something beautiful out of that”… “using light and colour to transform”. Over time, he says, he has attempted to “drain any kind of literal narrative out of the pictures and have them be more open-ended, more elusive, more psychological”.

What I notice about Crewdson’s images is that many of the women stand naked, parallel-planted feet suggesting inertia, head slightly bowed in what we read as shame, regret or resignation. Interestingly, they look exactly as they would if they were standing on bathroom scales. His male subjects also have this posture sometimes. Indeed few heads are not bowed in Crewdson’s images.

There is often a sense of strangeness or inappropriateness. Children are juxtaposed with adults who are unclothed and preoccupied. Things that usually happen inside the home might take place outside and vice versa – domestic interiors become a garden, lake or lawn, while people stand naked and motionless in the street or sleep on a mattress in the garden.

There is often damage – things are broken and scattered, suitcases have fallen open, cars are slewed across the scene with their doors or boot hanging open, smoke billows in the distance. These features hint at an event that has just taken place and which might explain the apparent motionless posture of subjects – frozen, perhaps, in shock or horror.

The images are rich in metaphor and allegory. We see people’s reflections, dark puddles that might be blood, flowers strewn across a room like dashed hopes, unmade beds that offer nowhere to settle.

The light is invariably twilight, carrying a sense of impending darkness and doom with a long night ahead. Lit windows offer a poignant contrast to, and inaccessible haven from, the unreadable scene that confronts us. Time seems to stretch endlessly in this twilight zone of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is the constant… there are no answers to the questions that are raised. This reminds us of the existential void that awaits us when we attempt to step outside of the constructed framework of conceits and habits that support our everyday lives and conceal the ultimate unknowableness of the universe. The niggling discomfort we experience when we look at Crewdson’s images is our higher consciousness poking a finger through the fabric of our “reality”.

What is my main goal when making pictures? My aims and ideas about this have changed a lot since I began this course, especially since I started C&N. Certainly I would like to be able to do work that lingers in the mind of the viewer and prompts them to question assumptions, but I do not yet have the knowledge and experience to do this.

Do I think there’s anything wrong with making beauty your main goal? No, I don’t. I believe we are hard-wired to respond to beauty and I don’t subscribe to the view that it is per se an invalid form of expression. If beauty is the only aspect of the work it will be unlikely to sustain the viewer’s interest or trouble their assumptions, but if, like Crewdson’s work and that of others such as Burtynsky (nd), the work’s beauty is part of the expression of an idea in which it plays an active role in engaging the viewer and/or exposing the artist’s point of view it is my opinion that the presence of beauty neither invalidates nor undermines the work. I am aware, however, that many people today hold the opposite view. I had a stimulating discussion on this very subject during October’s Brighton Biennial in relation to Harley Weir’s photographs of the Calais Jungle (Fabrica, 2018) with a photographer who (unlike Weir, who only visited to make photographs) spent an extended period of time working as a volunteer in the Jungle and was provoked to fury by Weir’s beautiful images, which she said bore no resemblance to her own view of the camp. I asked her whether it was possible to unravel her feelings about the images’ beauty from her feelings about Weir’s lack of engagement with the community, and she said it was an interesting question that she was unable to answer.

References and resources

Burtynsky, E. (nd) Edward Burtynsky. Available at https://www.edwardburtynsky.com [accessed 2.11.18]
Diaz, S. (2011) La fotografía surrealista de Gregory Crewdson. Available at https://www.xatakafoto.com/fotografos/la-fotografia-surrealista-de-gregory-crewdson [accessed 2.11.18]
Fabrica (2018) Harley Weir: Homes. Available at https://www.fabrica.org.uk/homes [accessed 2.11.18]
SCI-Arc Channel (2016) Interview with Gregory Crewdson. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jLtNwPB9eY [accessed 2.11.18]