Currently showing at SITE Santa Fe is a rather incredible display of images by New York artist Gregory Crewdson. The exhibition contains photos from two series, Hover (1996-1997) and Twilight (1998-2000). Crewdson could have easily been drop-shipped by Hollywood with his psychologically tense cinematic stills. However, unlike film, these photographs capture isolated moments with no past and no future, and an imaginary possibility hangs over them like a pregnant pause, playing to photography’s narrative strength.
Despite Crewdson’s success, he remains low-key and accessible, sharing his vision as a teacher at Yale and speaking openly about his work. He was interviewed at SITE Santa Fe in February 2001.
Antonio López : I’m envious because you have the satisfaction of working with your hands. With your earlier work, I noticed some of the tableaus you created are almost like train sets. Is there something from your childhood that appeals to you in creating these dioramas ?
Gregory Crewdson : I think that, in a sense, there’s something about photography in general that we could associate with memory, or the past, or childhood. I never literally made miniature trains, tableaus, or anything. But there is something very childlike in the process.
AL : What inspired you to start building these sets ?
GC : I was just very interested in museum dioramas, actually, and I’ve always been interested in wanting to construct the world in photographs. So I think that initiated my work in general— just wanting to create a complete world, whether or not it’s in my studio or out on location. I think one of the things we can get from photography is this establishment of a world.
AL : You mentioned something about your dreams influencing a particular series. From what I understand, it takes up to a month to do one photograph.
GC : I think there’s an internal vision of some sort, like I think all artists do, and the struggle to try to present it or represent it in the world, whatever it takes to do that, I’ll do it.
AL : Do you know why it is that you are in photography and not film ?
GC : Yeah, because although the work is influenced by film, I’m very struck by the still image, and I’m interested in the limitations of a photograph in terms of its narrative capacity to have an image that’s frozen in time, and there’s no before or after. So I want to use that limitation as a kind of strength, you know.
AL : You’ve talked about how your childhood influenced the psychological states that you portray.
GC : I think I’ve mentioned that my father was a psychoanalyst, and he was always a very close inspiration for me, and I think it’s what accounts for the psychological nature of the work. That’s one thing. The other thing is that the setting of my work is the suburbs, or an imagined suburban landscape, and I’m originally from New York, I still live in New York, so I think that discrepancy presents the work with a sense of alien perspective, let’s say, or a sense of wonder.
AL : Before I looked at your book, I couldn’t help but have the recurring image of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as I walked through the SITE Santa Fe exhibit. Then I saw the stills from the film in your book. Was that a direct influence, or did you tap into some kind of pop-cultural gestalt ?
GC : Everything makes much more sense when you look at it retrospectively ; things seem much more linear. When I was working through all that originally, it was much more chaotic and disruptive and frenzied, and it wasn’t until I re-saw Close Encounters that I realized, Oh, my god. [The work] was strangely connected to that figure, you know, this process . . .
AL : Especially the demons and obsession of the Richard Dreyfuss character. He doesn’t know where they’re coming from initially.
GC : Right. He’s struggling to make sense of that. That’s what the artist does, you know. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the artistic process.
AL : There are several articles connecting different contemporary artists who seem to be working in a similar vein, about suburbia, its dark side, perhaps. Do you feel comfortable being included in this "movement" ?
GC : I think that there are certain general tendencies. Artists are drawn to certain things, and certainly I feel aligned with certain things and not others. The work that inspires me sort of comes from that tradition, like Edward Hopper, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, or Stephen Spielberg. We all approach suburbia with a sense of possibilities.
AL : In past interviews you mentioned that your photos were American realist images in photographic form, and I immediately jumped to Hopper ; a light bulb went off. I really see a strong correlation.
GC : Yeah, yeah. I could be slightly ironic and say he’s the greatest American photographer [laughter]. What I mean by that is he’s so hugely influential in terms of our understanding of ourselves. But he seems so current in terms of contemporary photography [with] his interest in the American vernacular.
AL : As a WPA artist he was a populist, so would you see your work in that tradition as well ?
GC : I wouldn’t call myself a populist, but I would say that I feel one of the reasons I’m drawn to photography and the subject I explore is that there’s a kind of accessibility to it. I’m interested in drawing the viewer in with that accessibility. However, once they’re in, then I like to sort of fuck with that one way or another, complicate that relationship.
AL : I guess that’s reflected in the process of working with these communities where you photograph. It seems like after the product is complete and the people are seeing themselves in these images, there must be some complexity involved there.
GC : The Twilight pictures particularly... there’s the photograph itself, which is of this final, beautiful thing, hopefully ; and then there’s the process of making the picture, which is very different from the final picture. I think the process, in my mind, is as important as the picture itself.
AL : In terms of working with the people in the community, what is the difference between the time that you’re involving them with the creation of the photograph and then with the final product ?
GC : I work very closely with the community and with my production crew, but then it becomes something much more private. I contemplate the pictures very privately, show almost no one — and then there’s the final picture image, and once I make that, then I disseminate the pictures in the town. And they usually like the pictures.
AL : They work with you, they know who you are, and I assume that they like you, as opposed to some kind of invading army coming in from New York : a bunch of weird artists messing up their community.
GC : Well, there’s partially that, too. It’s partially a collaboration, but it’s also partially like intervention. I have to find a balancing point ; I have to know when I’m overstepping.
AL : So in the process of creating intervention, do you feel that you touch people ?
GC : Well, I don’t know. I think maybe the process has in a sense. What I think is that we make situations, you know. And that situation could be seen as something positive and good, or it could be seen as a disruption or distraction. It all depends. Ultimately, I have an idea of a picture in my mind that I want to make, and maybe it’s a measure of my obsession or narcissism, that I, or whatever it is, activate that. You have to be fairly aggressive about wanting to make a picture in certain situations, unlike the earlier pictures that were elaborately staged. I mean, they’re not staged pictures in my studio, where I could just work hours and hours on end, in complete isolation. They’re much more about working in an outside context.
AL : I had an epiphany once when I was in Mexico and I realized that I felt inhibited photographing people. I had met a Spanish photojournalist who could just jump into any situation and take a picture. I realized that photos depend so much on the personality of the photographer interacting with the subject of the photograph.
GC : Photography is a very complicated thing. When you’re making a picture, there’s levels of intrusion and levels of voyeurism and levels of exploitation, you know. And I think a photographer has to measure what lines he’s willing to cross and what becomes worth it to make a picture. I think Walker Evans talks about having certain anxieties about making a photograph or not, and then feeling nervous about it. His answer for that is simple. It’s like, if I don’t make this picture it won’t be made, right ? So I think what he’s saying is the photograph is the important thing.
AL : It transcends the entire process ?
GC : Well, either you have the picture or not, you make the decision. It might be uncomfortable, it might be difficult, but I think that photographers are ultimately responsible for their own vision.
AL : Do you see voyeurism as an American phenomenon ? Is it part of the pop culture, or is it something that’s universal ?
GC : I think it’s built into the act of photography. Just the process of looking through a framed world separates the artist from the subject ; it creates a kind of implicit voyeurism. And I think on a fundamental level, part of why we’re drawn to photography is it’s kind of a voyeuristic act, and there’s a fascination in that.
AL : In the Duchamp installation, Étant Donnés, you look through the peephole at a naked body. I understand you had an opportunity to actually look through it, but you decided not to ; you only wanted to see the piece as a photograph, the image of the image.
GC : That’s changed since then. I’ve actually seen Étant Donnés.
AL : And so what was it like ?
GC : I saw it like a photographer, you know. I still see it as a photographic piece. And you know, a sculptor will see it as a sculptural piece. I think it’s such a powerful and mysterious icon ; you bring your own interpretation to it. I think part of the strength of that piece is that you can’t wholly understand it.
AL : I guess different kinds of artists can say the same about your work because there is the sculptural element and then there’s this cinematic element, the photographic element, and even the narrative element.
GC : Well, one of the fantastic things about photography, I think, is that it kind of exists between everything, you know. It’s a currency by which we sort of understand ourselves. Photographic representation exists among almost every avenue of representation.