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Gregory Crewdson and the innocence of photographers

The images: Gregory Crewdson, Gustave Courbet, Jeff Wall and Hokusai — searching for “a perfect moment.”

For FK, JV and TR

It says something that large cities often have a place called Centre for Contemporary Photography. Of course, Melbourne also has a Centre for Traditional and Contemporary Painting — it’s called the NGV.

This itch for validation is a curious chip on the shoulder of photography — a medium which has colonised our idea of the visual since, say, the amazing moment of  Mathew Brady and the Civil War. But sometime early in the 20th century its younger sibling, the movies, stepped out and the momentum has been with moving images all the way to youtube and your smartphone.

As part of the Melbourne Festival, CCP in Fitzroy (till Nov. 11) is showing one of the biggest names in photography today, Gregory Crewdson. His large photographs are among the biggest too, at over 2m wide. The show is an example of several inversions.

One of the defining and modern aspects of photography is its multiple, reproducible nature — each manifestation is a copy, variable in quality, and its scalable nature means there is no definitive, authorised version — an everyday effect on the internet. (In the case of Crewdson’s pictures, there is a severe loss as the density and minuteness of detail in them is betrayed by the jpeg format and the limits of screen size.) Art photography turns this upside down: numbered editions (Crewdson may do 6),  and printed to customised dimensions and finish — these, then, are images given materiality — are art-industry prints, suitable for investment. It laughs at John Berger’s 40-year-old prediction, channeling Walter Benjamin: “For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.”

Untitled (Brief Encounter) from the series Beneath the Roses, by Gregory Crewdson

Untitled from the series Beneath the Roses, by Gregory Crewdson

 

“My pictures are about a search for a moment—a perfect moment. To me the most powerful moment in the whole process is when everything comes together and there is that perfect, beautiful, still moment. And for that instant, my life makes sense.” Gregory Crewdson

In the Age Robert Nelson wrote a scathing review of the show. Dr Marcus Bunyan responded with a counter-review on Art Blart. (Art Blart has excellent reproductions of the photos, so it’s worth going to see how they look.) But they both agree there is something about the figures in the pictures. Nelson:

The human subjects in Beneath the roses strike me as lifeless, perhaps because of long exposures, during which everyone is ordered to stand still. The scenes mostly have a tragic air with incomplete narratives; but because of the contrived lighting, atmosphere and paralytic acting, they’re enigmatic in a goofy way.

Bunyan:

I must acknowledge the physically … static nature of the images where every detail of the mise-en-scène is fully articulated and locked down: from the perfect trickle of blood running from the woman’s vagina in Blue Period, to the reflections in mirrors … to the desolate looks of the participants that never engage with the viewer … there is no real chthonic madness here, no real messiness of the capture of death, murder and the wastage of human life.

Or, as Nelson bluntly puts it: “If you put bored people in a photograph, the picture ends up looks boring.” I found the pictures cold and impressive — part of their effect comes from knowing that their enormous size and amount of detail is commensurate with the method — requiring a large budget and team; much has been written about this, and a documentary on his work has just been made. Crewdson has his own director of photography and never holds the Hasselblad: “At a five-week shoot in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he and his crew waited days and days for a few inches of snow.”  Alas, I too find the results, if not exactly boring, not very convincing (which is ironic), therefore not moving — as even the enthusiastic Bunyan notes, the figures “never engage with the viewer.”

 

A post by J. Hoberman on the New York Review of Books blog looks at a current show at the Met titled Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop. It begins by quoting that pioneer art photographer, Edward Steichen: “Every photograph is a fake from start to finish … a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph [was] practically impossible.” The show’s curator Mia Fineman writes: “Especially in the early days of the medium, producing a realistic-looking photograph often required a healthy dose of artful trickery.” So there is ample and venerable precedence for the highly engineered approach of Crewdson, with his built indoor sets, his crews and lights and actors, and the compositing of many separate images into a single picture (where, say, power lines have been erased).

Hoberman: “The sterile debate as to whether photography was actually an art continued well into the twentieth century. The real issue, of course, was whether photography had changed the nature of art—not least by introducing the element of chance.” Crewdson’s method reverses that too: chance has been emliminated in pursuit of the perfect moment, or rather, the perfected moment.

The line of descent for this idea comes not from Steichen, but of course, from painting. A recentish-oldish example is Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio, his magnus opus from 1854-5; one can imagine he would have cheerfully swapped his oil paints for a camera crew ala Annie Leibowitz and Crewdson. Because: now, for fashion’s sake, it would be de trop to make this kind of picture in paint, it would be passe, even if one had Courbet’s extraordinary talent and energy to lift the brush to a 6m canvas.

So, for Crewdson, the world is not enough; his perfect moment has nothing to do with Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, life and the world caught on the hop. As Cartier-Bresson blithely recommends photography: “Because it’s quicker than drawing.” Or, as Hoberman quotes the land artist Robert Smithson’s “crack” about photography: “A great artist can make art by simply casting a glance.”

None of this is to diminish or deny Crewdson’s mode. There are many ways, many results, many preferences. But something photography can do which no other medium can is to record — with a general consensus of its sort-of objectivity, its “reality” — the split-second world around us. No set-building or patient scene-setting could compete with, say, a Hokusai woodcut. Maybe for a gust of wind, but a great wave?

 

A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) by Jeff Wall

 

Obviously, these are bits of art after different things. The power or delight of a photographed scene relies on our taking on faith that this is part the phenomenal world: “I Want to Believe,” in the ironic catchcry of the old X-Files poster. A gap in that faith can lead to an intended effect, or may just be a failure of technique. Despite decades of exposure, we still tend to approach a photo with an innocent eye.

Hokusai’s figurative but non-realist art asserts a different relation between artist and viewer and the depicted. His woodcut of a wave is explicitly also about the hand of the artist — the signature re-rendering, re-visioning of the world — the old-fashioned result, in the Chinese saying, of the eye and the hand and the heart. In a Crewdson photograph, the world as we know it has been re-ordered to a perfect, still, moment. In the Hokusai print, the artist has drawn us another world. We are no longer seeing the world as we know it, but a world previously unexisting — we are (if the artist is succesful) excited by line and shape and colour and somewhere in there, content and narrative. We do not need to believe, only imagine.

 

 

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  • 1
    James Verdon
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Great post, thanks. So many threads in here, so little time and space to realise them. You could serialise this…..

    Picking up on just one (or two) moments:

    On the differences between photography and reality, still and moving images, I do like Stanley Cavell:

    ‘One might wonder that similar questions do not arise about recordings of sound. I mean, on the whole we would be hard put to find it false or paradoxical to say, listening to a record, “That’s an English horn”; there is no trace of temptation to add (as it were, to oneself), “But I know it’s really only a recording.” Why? A child might be very puzzled by the remark, said in the presence of a phonograph, “That’s an English horn,” if something else had already been pointed out to him as an English horn. Similarly, he might be very puzzled by the remark, said of a photograph, “That’s your grandmother.” Very early, children are no longer puzzled by such remarks, luckily. But that doesn’t mean we know why they were puzzled, or why they no longer are. And I am suggesting that we don’t know either of these things about ourselves… Yet this seems, ontologically, to be what is happening when we look at a photograph: we see things that are not present. Someone will object: “That is playing with words. We’re not seeing something not present; we are looking at something perfectly present, namely, a photograph.” But that is affirming something I have not denied. On the contrary, I am precisely describing, or wishing to describe, what it means to say that there is this photograph here. It may be felt that I make too great a mystery of these objects. My feeling is rather that we have forgotten how mysterious these things are, and in general how different different things are from one another, as though we had forgotten how to value them. This is in fact something movies teach us.’

    From ‘The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film’
    Harvard University Press, 1979, pp. 18-9

  • 2
    W H Chong
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Dear James,
    Thanks for the remark and the subtle Cavell quote.

    Indeed photos are magical objects — and their paper thinness is part of their strangeness. If they weren’t already invented they would be a perfect fit in a Harry Potter story. But our common sense understands at once — even the mythic photo-virgins of the Amazon forests and African hinterlands — that the picture refers to the world. Music of course is abstract. Why not call a phonogram a tuba? The photograph is a strange thing in itself, but the subject of a photograph can be entirely banal.

    There are many gaps in the post — chief among them is not dwelling on the Crewdson images themselves, on their artistic aims. The frozen tableaux is pretty unexciting to me — if you have figures in the pictures and the figures look uninvolved (that frequent criticism of his pictures), that’s a pretty big problem. Imagine a tight crop of a man’s face crying — immediately you wonder what the story is. In Crewdson’s maniacally constructed and adjusted scenarios we are given the clues to make up our narrative –one that Crewdson says he does not have in mind when he makes the picture. But the actor, the “actor”, in the scene looks detached, so there is no compelling reason to guess the human story — the picture as puzzle comes to the fore. That’s what I meant by “cold.”

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