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Foreword| However his insightful images are far more complex than first observation might suggest. Famous for his exhibitions of huge prints, and his employment of up to sixty crew members in the creation of a single photograph, he is certainly unique among the photographic community. However the question remains, does his work attain the same narrative richness as film or, due to its entrapment in a still world, always fall short? Members in the creation of a single photograph, he is certainly unique among the photographic community.
However the question remains, does his work attain the same narrative richness as film or, due to its entrapmen Famous for his exhibitions of huge prints, and his employment of up to sixty crew members in the creation of a single photograph, he is certainly unique among the photographic community. However the question remains, does his work attain the same narrative richness as film or, due to its entrapment in a still world, always fall short? Famous for his exhibitions of huge prints, and his employment of up to sixty crew members in the creation
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However the question remains, does his work attain the same narrative richness as film or, due to its entrapmen Famous for his exhibitions of huge prints, and his employment of up to sixty crew members in the creation of a single photograph, he is certainly unique among the photographic community. However the question remains, does his work attain the same narrative richness as film or, due to its entrapment in a still world, always fall short? Famous for his exhibitions of huge prints, and his employment of up to sixty crew members in the creation of a single photograph, he is certainly unique among the photographic community. However the question remains, does his work attain the same narrative richness as film or, due to its entrapment in a still world, always fall short? Famous for his exhibitions of huge prints, and his employment of up to sixty crew members in the creation of a single photograph, he is certainly unique among the photographic community. However the question remains, does his work attain the same
narrative richness as film or, due to its entrapment in a still world, always fall short? Famous for his exhibitions of huge prints, and his employment of up to sixty crew members in the creation of a single photograph, he is certainly unique among the photographic community. However the question remains, does his work attain the same narrative richness as film or, due to its entrapment in a still world, always fall short?
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Introduction| Since its advent photography has been made to mimic. Starting with the statuesque poses of early portraiture and the romantic painterly scenes of the turn of the century it recycled the rules of classical art, but was often seen as a poor substitute. However, when the moving image was invented and became popular, the two art-forms had both a sibling affinity and rivalry. Here were two ways of image making seated in chemistry. Unlike painting there was no original. The photograph could be replicated easily and indefinitely. This led to their immediate adoption by the press, and soon the photograph overwhelmed any other form of illustration. The relationship between cinema and photography has been a varied one ever since. In todayâ€™s world of post-modern media Gregory Crewdsonâ€™s work walks a narrow line between photographic originality and cinematic
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theft. However his insightful images are far more complex than first observation might suggest. Famous for his exhibitions of huge prints, and his employment of up to sixty crew members in the creation of a single photograph, he is certainly unique among the photographic community. However the question remains, does his work attain the same narrative richness as film or, due to its entrapment in a still world, always fall short?
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The Ambiguous Moment | The “ambiguous moment” 1 (Morrow, B. 1997) is how Crewdson describes that which is at the heart of each of his eerie images; the sense of the uncanny that has just, or is soon to take place. Through his photographs Crewdson seems to prove, and relish in doing so, that this moment, this feeling, is the closest state to a clear narrative it is possible to achieve with a single photograph. Is this so? Henri Cartier Bresson, himself a documentary filmmaker, before turning to photography, coined the (now over-used) phrase ‘decisive moment’. The moment where all elements in the frame converge to form the perfect explanation of whatever episode he was photographing. However, this notion itself is floored. The process of photography captures a two dimensional rendering of what
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BOMB Magazine. 1997. Interview with Gregory Crewdson by Bradford Morrow http://www.bombsite.com/issues/61/articles/2090 accessed on October 12th 2009.
light exists or is placed. That is all. The first distortion happens the moment the camera is fired, the lens swallows light to record what it sees; which is not essentially what a witness sees. To try and realise why Crewdson is so driven in his pursuit of the “perfect…beautiful image” 2 (Morrow, B. 1997) we must recognise the paradox that he himself creates by disallowing a linear narrative and by his understanding of Bresson’s theory. Crewdson’s own problem with the way a still photograph portrays reality lies within “Narrative and the limitations of photographs” 3 (Page 82. Bright, S. 2006). Indeed painting, illustration, and photography deal only in the singular moment. No matter how abstract, there is always a sense of its fixture existing at the time of creation. His envy of film and literature’s ability to “Move forward in time” 4 (Page 82. Bright, S. 2006) created a desire to turn photography’s limitation into a “strength” which would be at the core of his storytelling. Despite this strength, Crewdson believes all photographs fail, describing his frustration being caused by photography itself. “Reproduction is reproduction and will always, one way or another, fail you” 5 (Page 83. Bright, S. 2006). His fastidious approach means his works are always released as series. However within these series there is no ongoing narrative, nor clear repetition of characters. Each image is a separate entity within the context of the other, with its own morals and questions. In this way it is much like the suburban community which it represents, each individual character part of a larger picture. Ultimately each photograph warrants its own existence, its own world. The linkage of his series lying perhaps only in the location and their surreal atmosphere. To view one of Crewdson’s images properly demands it to be of a large scale. We can peer deep into his scenes and witness what appears
2 BOMB Magazine. 1997. Interview with Gregory Crewdson by Bradford Morrow http://www.bombsite.com/issues/61/articles/2090 accessed on October 12th 2009.
Page 82. Bright, Susan. 2006. Art Photography Now. London. Thames & Hudson.
Page 82. Bright, Susan. 2006. Art Photography Now. London. Thames & Hudson.
Page 83. Bright, Susan. 2006. Art Photography Now. London. Thames & Hudson.
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to be a world we recognise, may even live in. But the photographic processes and its inherent reproduction removes us from this scene, so that, God-like, we watch the most intimate moments of human existence with the strange removal of immediate human emotions such as panic and threat. Instead feeling only those emotions associated with retrospect, those such as loneliness, emptiness, worry and regret the essentially human emotions that exist outside of our animal instincts.
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The Cinematic experience and Crewdson’s interpretation| Here is the similarity with cinema. The voyeuristic eye that Crewdson lends us. The eye that feels so natural. We may float above a neighbourhood, or see two rooms by cutting through a wall or floor and it is natural. The camera is a ghost, able to glide through matter. This is a characteristic of the viewers perspective shared with film, where the camera moves in ways impossible for human eyes. Craneshots, zooms, stedi-cams… they are completely un-real and yet they pass un-noticed as we follow the tale. Sometimes the film-maker acknowledges this and deliberately disorientates this comfortable sense to remind us of its existence, but in Crewdson’s work he uses it so fully that viewers are absorbed unknowingly. Utilising it like no other photographer. He describes the nature of his photography in depicting a moment
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that is “frozen and mute” 6 (Morrow, B. 1997), yet out of this he gives life artificially. Like the scenes of a fictional film his photographic tableaux never took place in our world, and this is where he becomes more than a photographer. He is a director, positioning actors in action. The difference between the cinematic (and Crewdson’s) production and regular photography being that the whole scene exists patiently for the photographic record itself. Whereas photography as a medium is more associated with its ability to freeze a fleeting moment. By working in this way there enters a deliberate sense of creation, and in creation exists drama. Influencing the contents of the image Crewdson can act as any writer or director. Never is this more relevant than in his studio-sets. Creating a false environment and staging an imagined scene, no matter how seemingly lacking in action Crewdson cannot help but create drama. The plot in Crewdson’s image arrives not out of explanation as in cinema, but out of the unknown.
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6 BOMB Magazine. 1997. Interview with Gregory Crewdson by Bradford Morrow http://www.bombsite.com/issues/61/articles/2090 accessed on October 12th 2009.
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The Narrative, The Unknown The andNarrative, The and TheUnknown Imagined: The Imagined|
The human psyche has an inherent, and amazing, ability to imagine. In seeing a photograph or painting it queries what has happened in the lead up to its depiction and what is about to take place. Sometimes the viewer enters the scene and empathises with one of the characters, but not always. Crewdson encourages this. In cinema or literature, taking a single moment out of context within the entire story changes its meaning to the viewer completely. With Crewdson this context never existed except afterwards, in the viewers mind. The narrative is suggested, but is ultimately different with each person’s study of the work. In this way the relationship between Crewdson’s work and cinematic narrative is no-longer symbiotic. Instead Crewdson takes what he needs from cinema’s extensive and recognisable style to
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manipulate the viewer. Decades of an instilled ‘repertoire of elements’ forces the audience to acknowledge certain techniques, both narrative and technical that exist in the majority of cinematic experiences. To alien eyes Crewdson’s images would be perfectly real. However, anyone who knows cinema, no matter how little, recognises the staging of a dream - that dream being the way in which the events can only be real in the location of the mind. The audience enters the world, smells the wet grass, feels the tension, hears the silence, but the viewer cannot touch it and never will. What Crewdson tells them, and maybe wishes to find himself, is the beauty in the ‘real’ world, the beauty outside of the camera or the gallery or the pages of his book, the beauty in all moments of life in the ‘actual’ world. Crewdson can only acknowledge their existence through striving to mimic them. Hyper-real, only then can the images transcend culture and language, to give us a visual purity films rarely express in their need to constantly explain themselves to the viewer. One film exists which also hinges upon a higher visual language. It is Koyaanisqatsi, the first in the ‘Qatsi’ trilogy. Unlike Crewdson’s photographs it records the ‘real’ American world. Slowly seducing the audience with absolutely beautiful photography and trance-like music it gently forces them to fall in love with what they see. However ugly or serene, each place is treated with equal care and attention, and out of this treatment emerges democracy. Crewdson’s view of photography in regard to other art forms is that “it is the most democratic insofar as it’s instantly readable and accessible to our culture.” (Morrow, B. 1997). If this view of the ‘democratic’ nature of photography and its role in popular culture is true then it explains its success in areas such as advertising and marketing. Cnsidering the photograph’s use in marketing, viewers react to a still advertisement quite differently to a moving one. The repetitive
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address of movement and noise in a motion advert can become tedious and irritating. However a still advert does not demand attention. It simply exists until found, flicking through the pages of a magazine or walking down the street. Audiences can ignore or can choose to read its message. Once they do they are then free to imagine and conceive the images message in relevance to themselves. In the same way as such adverts, Crewdson’s work demands no attention (except for its poster-like scale). The way it exists is by only catching the viewers whom wish to study it, who don’t walk past. These people, like Crewdson, are those who enjoy the beauty in the world, and having found this audience Crewdson offers them his own. In Koyaanisqatsi we find a similar sense. Although obviously best viewed from beginning to end, the freedom of plot or story allows the viewer to arrive at any point and enjoy the enveloping atmosphere. There is no specific journey, except a broader message about beauty and consumption. Ironically in Crewdson’s work one always feels as if one has arrived in the middle of a complex film knowing nothing about its plot. Both demand our stringent analysis before their messages or questions begin to be deciphered. We cannot act as the passive audience many films allow us to become. Whilst talking about visual theorist Christian Metz’s writing, David Campany observes that “the photograph belongs inextricably to the past, while film always seems to unfold in the present tense…” (Page 11. Campany, D. 2008). This seems to be something that Crewdson is acutely aware of, yet it can be difficult to see whether he wants his images to utilise their inherited tense or try and break it. He certainly blurs the lines by questioning our belief that we are seeing part of an imaginary film. Take Plate 19 of his “Twilight” series for example (see appendix 1.). This is one of the most iconic images from that collection. Looking in
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as witnesses the viewer immediately feels a sense that the dramatic has passed, giving them a sense of the past tense. Is the woman dead? Is the shot the view-point of a human, alive and present to see the main character like this? The subject matter is not the only un-nerving thing about this image - so too is what it does to the viewerâ€™s sense of place and helplessness.
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The Psychoanalyst and Shakespeare|
Crewdson grew up the son of a psychoanalyst. Between jobs his father held discussions with patients in the cellar of their Brooklyn home. Crewdson admits to “listening through the floor” (Morrow, B. 1997) as a young child and trying to decipher the complex adult meetings taking place. Surely this must have had an impact on the young Crewdson? Many critics agree that his works are a visual representation of different and altered states of mind. Explorations into the way we ourselves think and process what we believe to see. Photo-historian and critic Gerry Badger claims with certainty that Crewdson’s images “present psychological states rather than the real world.” (Page 35. Badger, G. 2007). In Plate 19, the more it is studied the more it reveals, almost forensically. However this process of study forces further questioning.
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On the coffee table in the bottom left-hand corner are an empty pillbottle and a glass of water (both running motifs in much of his work), which seem to point to suicide or drug abuse, either way it certainly represents desperation. The woman lies in the flooded room, but her slippers watch from the stairs, as if she took them off before entering the water. This is something of a common phenomenon witnessed by police at scenes of people who have thrown themselves from bridges. Did she die only to be lifted by rising water or was the water there already? Is she dead at all? Hence the creation of a sense of frustration and then mystery. The most obvious visual inspiration for this scene is Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite painting of ‘Ophelia’ (See appendix 2.). Crewdson’s placement in a suburban setting is typical of his distrustful representation of what promises to be an area of kindness and safety. Of all his images this seems to be one of the most cinematic of all, despite its roots in fine-art. Our eyes are allowed to wander the room, completing the job of close-ups and cut-aways in a cinematic scene. Perhaps this is because there is something inherently cinematic in Millais’ work too. With ‘Ophelia’, Millais presents a classical metaphor of innocence lost. The freshly picked flowers fall apart in her hand and drift downstream. The water-logged dress bellows and twists. Her hands upturned as in classical paintings of Christ’s stigmata. It is this mix of visceral beauty and other-worldly morality that gives it such a cinematic quality. The expert realism that the Pre-Raphaelite’s celebrated in painting is a vision shared with Crewdson; reproducing his visions in the highest possible quality. His method involves shooting multiple exposures on a huge 10x8” plate camera before stitching the images together digitally to rid the scene of any photographic faults. Hence we see into every shadow and every highlight with a painterly quality; an ability the camera fails to complete in a single frame.
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If we compare the two images side by side we find that they certainly share an overall ambiance. The heroine lies similarly in both scenes, head on the left, face up in the dark water. Millais’ is very true to Shakespeare’s description of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet. However Crewdson’s image takes her into modern suburbia. Generating the sense of man-made isolation in the context of the home rather than Millais’ deep forest. A major difference is the way in which Crewdson undresses his heroine, hinting at the changed ideas of the romantic over the past century. Gone are the ideas of innocence and virginal purity and now Ophelia is a creature of the night, dressed in a thin chemise that exposes much of her body’s shape. On the same table as the pills is a paperback novel by prolific American trash-writer Nora Roberts, and on a shelf overlooking the room is a framed wedding photograph. Gone is the Shakespearian, this woman is a typical suburban wife, as mediocre and as insignificant as the next person. The only unusual and unique part of her existence is the surreal scene Crewdson puts her in. Physically and mentally drowned in her own home.
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Tense and Reality| As discussed, Crewdson uses association in Plate 19 to enrich its narrative, however he also presents the viewer with a broad use of time. A key ingredient to narrative is of-course tense, but in what tense does Plate 19â€™s moment exist? If we bear in mind his psychoanalytical approach, it is possible for it to exist in all three. In the past Crewdson depicts the passing of a life, or a precise and pivotal moment in it. In the present reading the viewer empathises with the character, imagining themselves as her or trying to help her. In the future lies a message about the fragility and mortality of all things, including the viewer; certainly a message that carries through Crewdsonâ€™s entire cannon from his most early works. By turning his tableaux, his human sculptures, into photographic
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prints, he creates inanimate objects that cannot die or age, like the faces of screen stars living on celluloid long after their owners’ deaths. The single moment Crewdson records, or creates, is as immortal as is humanly possible. Fictitious as those moments in any piece of cinema story-telling, but touching nonetheless. This is where the real sadness lies. The woman is an actress, or model. The minute the shutter is fired she carries on aging, as does everything else, except the image. To the left and right and outside the windows are lights. The set is built in a huge studio, and behind a large plate camera stands Crewdson and his team of up to sixty people. The commanding director. Behind all the scenes that touch the heart in the greatest films, behind all of Crewdson’s tender and deeply intimate moments lies falsity. No more real than performers on an empty stage, despite every effort for their apparent realism. Whereas the painter can work totally from imagination, there must be a starting point with any photographic rendition. This is an element that photography and cinema share, the element of certain visual truths. There must be a scene to record. It cannot be conjured out of thin air. Therefore can it ever be total myth? In the creation of the tableaux, is there then a creation of reality? It is a beautifully orchestrated piece of fiction. Urging the audience to look at these people. Not demanding their attention but slowly captivating them once it has it. Intelligently using semiotics to convey reality, but never letting the audience become anything other than a spectator. In Staiger’s study of spectatorship in cinema, she puts forward the idea that “in a representation the original is never there but always absent, a representation is a referring to some authentic or original real.” (Page 193. Staiger, J. 2000). The key word for Crewdson
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being “authentic”. There was never an “original” scene such as that depicted in Crewdson’s. They may be close to reality but all are surreal and created. Their “extravagant construction” (Page 33. Campany, D. 2003) causes David Campany to compare their production properties with that of cinema, describing them as “concocted”. However the counterargument to this is that however “concocted” the cinematic landscape is, the audience is always emotionally attached despite the artifice. Indeed Staiger’s view of the artifice’s effect on narrative is that it is put aside by the audience in a “search for a mastery and coherence of self” (Page 191. Staiger, J. 2000). Therefore, so long as the portrayal is convincing and based on some “authentic original” it can be expanded and warped and remain accessible. The intelligence in Crewdson’s most recent images lies in the extent to which they are so convincing, engaging and inviting. It is worth at this point looking at Crewdson’s earlier “Hover” series (See Appendix 3.). In an attempt to escape himself Crewdson changed technique. One of the switches he made was to shoot in black and white. Everything changes. There is now a barrier that stops us entering the scene. Beautiful as it is photographically, gone is the sense of reality. The landscapes refusal of colour acts as a constant reminder of its falsity. As if a mask was put over a fully expressive face. Strangely this is not so with cinema. Black and white films retain the accessibility that “Hover” lacks, supporting Staiger’s view of realism being concocted by the audience. The presence of sound and dialogue help the viewer to enter the representation of reality. The movement of objects through the frame aids their immersion too. Meanwhile “Hover” stays deadly static. Somehow even more life-less than Crewdson’s other stills.
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Perhaps the grey masses camouflage the action. It certainly exists, but is dulled. Perhaps, accidentally, Crewdson had realised a fundamental necessity in his work’s reading. Colour. If we study his colour palette we certainly find it to match that of common colour cinema. Particularly horrors and fantasies set in a muted American suburbia such as Carpenter’s original “Halloween” or Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “E.T: The Extra Terrestrial.” Dominated by blacks, greens and browns it is reliant on the mock-natural world of the city limits. Add to this the misty far-distance and golden rim-lighting and it is easy to understand that Crewdson works with Directors of Photography more used to working in film. If Crewdson were shooting the same subject in the same place without such elaborate attention to lighting, his pictures would be much more raw, more drably realistic like the location work of, say, Jeff Wall. However with these techniques his worlds become lush and inviting. Anyone who has witnessed modern cinema understands the visceral quality it can achieve. It is in this sense that Crewdson’s photography and the cinematic experience are most alike. As if his images were plucked from a reel of 35mm projection transparency and printed as a single bizarre frame.
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Homage| However technically alike still and moving photography are, the question remains, can a single image achieve a fully functional narrative? If we look into Crewdson’s latest work, “Beneath the Roses” we find more use of symbolism and props to create depth than ever before. Taking Plate 21 from the series as an example (See Appendix 4.), we see a snow-covered street scene in Middle America. Relatively distant on the right is a cinema. The letters of the sign read “Brief Encounter”. If we assume (quite safely given its cinema showing) that he means the 1945 film by David Lean and not the television series then it opens a small window into Crewdson’s personal taste. The David Lean film concerns a chance meeting between a man and a woman in a railway station. During the course of the film the
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possibility for the couple to cheat on their spouses arises, and through the negotiation of this moral dilemma the film unfolds. It deals with themes of guilt, duty, self-control and selfishness. All themes that arise throughout Crewdson’s work. Underneath the cinema sign in Crewdson’s image stands an elderly man, a man from the same generation as the film. He is lit by the cinema lights and stands alone in a golden pool in an image dominated by the steely-blue of twilight snow. It is as if Crewdson is visually beckoning our attention to this man. Raising the importance of his placement as if to imply a solidarity between his personal life and the issues of the film. As with his Ophelia, Crewdson is using association to enrich the viewing experience. In essence all of Crewdson’s works focus on ‘brief encounters’. That is their narrative. Without knowing any beginning or end we are left achingly ignorant. However this is the point. There is no story, only questions. He asks the viewer not to look at what his characters are doing but asks them to decide what they want them to be doing. Knowing all they know of them from a single moment they must rely on their own mental archive to construct any story. Like Laura and Alec, the main characters in Lean’s film, they are being forced to make decisions based on a minute period, they are asked to fall in love or be repulsed on little more than an aesthetic façade.
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Fine Art| As discussed, Crewdson’s inspiration does not derive simply from cinema. We surely cannot look long at his photographs before we are reminded of the paintings of Edward Hopper, another artist obsessed with the bleak isolation of suburbia, and the hole in the ‘American Dream’. Indeed if Hopper painted his version of Ophelia it would probably bear huge resemblance to Crewdson’s ‘lady in the flooded house’. However a more bizarre influence he cites in interview with his friend and critic Bradford Morrow is Duchamp’s final work, “Etant Donnes” (See Appendix 5. & 6.). He goes so far as to describe it as being “Absolutely” the “most important visual influence” (Morrow, B. 1997) in his mind when approaching his projects.
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“Etant Donnes” was created in total secrecy by Duchamp after the world thought he had left art behind to play professional chess. It is an installation piece that consists of a false wooden board door in which there are two holes, eye distance apart. By looking through these holes there is seen the entrance of a cave from within, looking out over a vast river valley. In the grass at the threshold of the cave lies a naked woman holding up a lamp. It is a romantic picturesque scene, however by way of controlling the peep-holes Duchamp prevents the ‘peeper’ from seeing the face of the woman. It is of course a three dimensional diorama, a representation of reality, but ultimately, a set. Crewdson uses the camera in the same way as Duchamp’s peep holes. Creating a private living sculpture, a tableaux, then photographing it so that it is fixed. Able only to be viewed as he intended. In sculpture this is rare, but in cinema it is the norm. As much as the viewer would like to they can never walk into the scene and observe the characters in situ. This imbues Duchamp’s work with something that is intrinsically ‘photographic’. Raymond Bellour cites the essence of the ‘photographic’ so concisely and appropriately when he describes it as being, “a state of “inbetween-ness”: in movement, it is that which interrupts, that paralyzes.” (Page 253. Beckman, K & Ma, J. 2008). What Duchamp had done was remove the camera, he had created the purest example of a photographic moment, like Plato’s cave or the earliest camera obscura. The only lens involved was the viewers eye, and so gone is Crewdson’s “failure of reproduction”.
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Turning the single event into a story| There is a film that crosses the boundaries between a photo-essay and a complete cinematic experience. That film is “La Jetée” the French art film from the Sixties by Chris Marker. At thirty-three minutes it is comprised almost entirely of still photographs, edited together linearly, and to a soundtrack to make an entire film. There is one snippet of moving image, brought more to life by its placement among so many stills. It borrows not only from cinema and photography, but also from the written word and the graphic novel. Reading, perhaps, most like the latter. Marker’s film was a revolutionary piece. It is arguable whether Crewdson’s work is. However, instead of making a film out of many single photographs like Marker, is Crewdson compressing a film-
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worthy narrative into an image, or series of images? It would perhaps only be possible if we accept that it is not a simply linear narrative. It is organic and transcendental, conceived in the image but brought to maturity through a collective reading by its audience. Then being almost infinitely varied and complex. Characters are not repeated from picture to picture, neither are locations as they are in “La Jetée”. However we are allowed to observe an entire community. That is the traceable, the constant, in Crewdson’s work. He never takes us outside, to foreign lands. All he creates exists in one microcosm of the world. A microcosm that looks like Mid-America. It does not matter that many of the viewers are not from this region. Can they not still relate to every depiction of human life? Those personal moments which take place everyday, around the world. Perhaps not so surreal as Crewdson’s, perhaps more surreal. In “La Jetée” Marker challenges our concept of time, and memory, tapping into the deepest truths of what it means to be human. To be able to consider our own existence and morality; that which separates us from the animal kingdom. It is this humanity that Crewdson is essentially interested in representing, despite his sometimes animalistic depictions of man. The way Crewdson’s photographs differ from Marker’s is in their critical distance. Crewdson’s images always contain the whole or nearly whole person. There is no close-up. That is created when the print absorbs its viewer and its sheer scale allows them to study the details of the image. However the image never gives a ‘human’ viewpoint either. Marker’s photography is far more expressive emotionally, and directive to the viewers’ reading. Having discussed Crewdson’s democracy we see, in part, that it is achieved out of the simplest photographic rules. Firstly the camera
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is always level. It never looks up or down in perspective. The camera may be low or high above a scene, but it never tilts, it focuses flatly on the vanishing point. Secondly no characters’ body leaves the frame. His models are viewable in their entirety, except when blocked by structure. These may seem strangely stringent, however they give his series a kinship that is very important to their success. In cinematic terms, Crewdson’s would be labelled as ‘establishing’ and ‘mid’ shots. Their role in cinema being to allow the audience to study the locations and details of an entire scene before going into the close-ups designed to absorb the viewer. Crewdson hasn’t given us close-ups since his most early works. His latest works live entirely within the ‘wider’ perspectives. Marker’s works take their rules from those formed in the films of Thirties Expressionism (See Appendix 7.). The importance of angle, perspective, focal-length and lighting to form drama are key to his work and bear more resemblance to the style of photographer Cindy Sherman’s series “film stills” in which she created a post-modern parody of the ease with which one can mimic cinema’s essence and symbolism in the still image (see Appendix 8.). Sherman’s debut into the photographic arts world, the “Film Stills” series has since been recognised as a very powerful moment in the female photographer’s importance. The series, which consists of a series of self-portraits of Cindy in movie-like scenarios, is certainly comparable to the work of Crewdson. Spanning differing genres and exploring the recognisably distinct style that the “cinematic” employs.
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The essential ‘cinematic’ and the ‘photographic’| Are they one? The remaining question seems to be what essentially differentiates the ‘cinematic’ and the ‘photographic’? Is it time and movement or is it more than that? They both seem to be frustratingly intangible concepts and yet they are digested on a twenty-four hour basis around the world; as much a part of modern life as eating and breathing. In his essay accompanying Crewdson’s latest book “Beneath the Roses”, Russell Banks compares the photographs of that series to the “glossy stills” posted in cinema lobbies to announce forth-coming features (Page 6. Crewdson, G. 2008). Celebrating their ability to allow individual interpretation. “Movie going is essentially a passive experience… we check our imaginations at the door.” (Page 6. Crewdson, G. 2008). This may be a little sweeping considering some
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of the broader cinematic texts explored in this essay, however it is true for a large part of ‘conventional’ cinema. Banks describes the way that audiences cannot “plug in” their “pasts… fantasies and denials” when engaged with a film. In this way the photograph has an ambiguity that may be advantageous or hindering. Whichever, it allows the viewer to ‘read’ the photograph at their own pace as “in complete control of our rate of perception we read a novel.” (Page 6. Crewdson, G. 2008). Although artists such as Marker or Duchamp play with this notion it remains a truth that photographs remain instantaneous. They are accessible at a glance or a prolonged study. They can be carried in a pocket or hung in a gallery, and essentially they imprint themselves on the mind. The ‘cinematic’ experience is more commonly based on the theatrical. A viewing that lasts for a fixed duration. Whereas the ‘human’ experience exists always and forever in the present. This may explain why Campany’s observation that photographs exist “inextricably to the past” (Page 11. Campany, D. 2008) is what makes them so accessible to our formation of memory. When remembering a film the human brain edits together critical moments. Whereas with music, a piece can be remembered in its entirety, visually the brain compresses memories and visions into hybridised pictures, butchered out of the present narrative in which they once existed. This inescapable process favours the still image for sheer permanence of memory. It speaks out with a clear message in a visual language, and Crewdson is as fluent in this language as is possible. When asked the plot of a film an audience member will recite a chronological rendition of what they, and everyone else in the screening-theatre witnessed. Crewdon’s images however contain a deceptively simple façade, which, like one-way glass allows the viewer
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to look into a world, and at the same time, see themselves reflected back. Any sort of narrative or morality is brought from Crewdson’s mind, the physical presence of the image, and the viewer. Bradford Morrow told Crewdson he found his work “Aesopian” (Morrow, B. 1997) as in from Aesope’s fables. They explore morals and states relevant to the entire human race; tenderness, madness, fragility. There are certainly films existing which are just as successful in their portrayal of these subjects. However the stillness and gravitas Crewdson imparts in a snap-shot works outside of narrative. It is distilled into a blend of those states, apart from time. That is the essentially ‘photographic’.
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Conclusion| Although much has been written about Crewdsonâ€™s artistic merit, little has been explored regarding his workâ€™s narrative ability, which is arguably its most revolutionary feature. It arises out of his chosen medium. Photography. Which remains unique today, as a means to capture existence, to prove and to falsify. Photographs have put people in jail and they have shown us the edges of our universe. Yet they can be as malleable and open-ended as the written word. Given birth out of science and life out of art, photography and cinema remain inseparable and always will. They are part of a family, a sub-species of art, fused in the same way as painting and illustration, sculpture and installation. Both have moved independently of oneanother for decades, however in the sharing of simple rules and
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foundations there is an unbreakable bond. In its most simple analysis we separate photography and cinema into still and moving pictures. However it cannot be this simple. After-all is cinema not simply twenty-five still images a second, an illusion of movement, but ultimately a freezing of life as paralyzed as the still? Crewdson sheds the illusion from this fact, as if going through a film reel with a pair of scissors looking for his “ambiguous moment.” However what he is really doing is creating a new illusion. Of movement and time and place and story. This illusion steals from cinema, but also from literature, from painting… from real life. To one viewer Crewdson’s photograph is a man by a car in the rain (See Appendix 9.), but to another (or indeed that same viewer on a different day) it is the very embodiment of fragility and the physicality of the human experience, which is ultimately how great art communicates. It instils the same feeling as finishing a great novel and considering the world changed for the new knowledge gained. There is no reason to state that Crewdson is above all other photographers in depth of meaning, because he is not. Many achieve what he has with photography. However few do it with the presence and originality of Crewdson. Few invest the time and effort he does. When talking about the paradox his works contain he describes how the process “between failure and compulsion to make something perfect creates anxiety.” (Morrow, B. 1997). Despite his colossal attempts to control light, figure and nature he recognises that the failure to do so is the biggest moral lesson he can bring to the viewer. It is this endless search that is addictive. Susan Sontag, leading theorist and once partner of another great image-maker Annie Leibovitz, once wrote that “all art aspires to the condition of photography” (Page 149. Susan, S. 1971), the “condition” seeming to have existed long before the technical process. As a
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formation of memories, a passing on of myth the ‘photographic’ is a state devoid of time, but upon which time has the utmost relevance. In its fix its meaning changes with time. Take the infamous portrait of Che Guevara, a once simple snapshot that came to be an icon, a symbol recognisable around the world, and in another hundred years another historical figure whose presence will have been lost with passing generations. Crewdson’s work is obsessed with the ‘in-between-ness’ that the ‘ambiguous moment’ possesses completely. An almost literal personification of what the ‘photographic’ is. The work relies not on icon, but on mystery. If ever the mystery ends, if ever the narrative opened by the stillness of his image is closed, then all appetite for what draws us in is gone.
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Books: Campany, David. 2008. Photography and Cinema (Exposures). London. Reakton Books Ltd.
Crewdson, Gregory. 2008. Beneath the Roses. New York. Harry N Abrams, Inc.
Campany, David. 2003. Art and Photography. London. Phaidon Press Ltd.
Beckman, Karen & Ma, Jean (editors). 2008. Still Moving (Between Cinema and Photography). U.S.A. Duke University Press.
Elsaesser, Thomas & Buckland, Warren. 2002. Studying Contemporary American Film, (A Guide to Movie Analysis). London. Arnold.
Sontag, Susan. 1971. On Photography. London. Penguin.
Kaplan, E Ann. 1990. Psychoanalysis & Cinema. London. Routledge.
Staiger, Janet. 2000. Perverse Spectators (The Practices of Film Reception). New York and London. New York University Press.
Bright, Susan. 2006. Art Photography Now. London. Thames & Hudson. Badger, Gerry. 2007. The Genius of Photography (How Photography Has Changed Our Lives). 3rd Edition 2008. London. Quadrille Publishing ltd. Cantz, Hatje. 2005. Gregory Crewdson (1985 - 2005). Ostfildern (Germany). Hatje Cantz verlag.
Crewdson, Gregory. 2002. Twilight. New York. Harry N Abrams, Inc.
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Films: Koyaanisqatsi. 1983. Dir. Reggio, Godrey. Metro Goldwyn Meyer.
Brief Encounter. 1945. Dir. Lean, David. Pinewood.
La JetĂŠe (The Pier). 1962. Dir. Marker, Chris. Argos Films.
Halloween. 1978. Dir. Carpenter, J. Compass International Pictures. Websites: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 1977. Dir. Spielberg, S. Columbia Pictures.
E.T (The Extra Terrestrial). 1982. Dir. Spielberg, S. Universal.
BOMB Magazine. 1997. Interview with Gregory Crewdson by Bradford Morrow http://www.bombsite.com/issues/61/ articles/2090 accessed on October 12th 2009.
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Plate 19 from “Twilight” series Gregory Crewdson | 2002.
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“Ophelia”. John Everett Millais | 1852
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Untitled from “Hover” series Gregory Crewdson | 1996.
Plate 21 from “Beneath the Roses” series Gregory Crewdson | 2008.
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“Etant Donnes” view from ‘peep’ holes Marcel Duchamp | 1966.
“Etant Donnes” installation. Marcel Duchamp | 1966.
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Still from “La Jetee” Chris Marker | 1962.
“Untitled Film Still No.21” Cindy Sherman | 1978.
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Plate 14 from “Beneath the Roses” series Gregory Crewdson | 2008.
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