I must admit that I was a little nervous before meeting Gregory Crewdson in a small conference room at Film Forum a few days ago. I have covered his work a couple of times in the past; once at Gagosian in New York and again at White Cube in London. But since he has such a strong aesthetic that really speaks for itself, and barely needs an introduction, I never felt like I wanted to know his character or to google his name to see what he looked like. To me he was just the majestic solitude of the American countryside, the moments of transition when reality and nightmares look disquietingly the same, the excess of clarity that dazed my mind.
It was the documentary “Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters” (on show at Film Forum through November 13th) that broke the ice. Now, through this film, the meticulous procedure behind Crewdson’s spectacular images comes to public domain.
The production of the movie lasted as long as that one of “Beneath the Roses”, the most famous series by the photographer. 50 pictures, all taken in western Massachusetts, whose production cost was about $ 150,000 each, like an indie movie. The look on Crewdson’s work is intimate and informal, like the relationship that the filmmaker Ben Shapiro and the photographer built over the time. The two met in Lee (MA), where Crewdson used to go on vacation with his family during his childhood and where he started shooting the first pictures of “Beneath the Roses”. Shapiro was there to film for “Egg”, a PBS tv show on art. Hence the idea of keeping on filming the whole series. The project became a one man crew with his camera for a 10 year production documentary. And this was indeed the key to get such an intimate look on Crewdson and his work.
“Everything came pretty natural. Ben walking on set was not disturbing at all. There are so many things going on before the actual shooting that his presence wasn’t really changing anything. Of course it was very different when I was going location scouting and it was just the two of us driving around. But, by the time Ben started filming this kind of scenes, we really got to know each other very well, so I never felt uncomfortable during the whole production”, said Crewdson.
“That’s why you see me so relaxed and laid-back. My guard is down” – he added – “This movie is not pretentious at all. Thinking about it now, maybe I should have acted a little bit more difficult!”, he laughed.
“Gregory gave me complete freedom. I had access to everything from the pre-production phase to the post-production”, stressed Shapiro. That’s how we get to know that the first of Crewdson’s passions was music. As a teenager he used to play in The Speedies, a post-punk band which would easily sell out in New York during the late Seventies. Coincidentally one of the hits of the band – “Let me take your photo” – was used as score by HP for one of its commercials in 2005.
Crewdson’s passion for photography came a little later, reinforced by the fact that he had a crush on a girl who was a photographer. So before receiving a Master in Fine Arts from Yale, he studied photography at SUNY Purchase.
Through the documentary other peculiar aspects of Crewdson’s approach to photography emerge. For instance an important phase for the creation of each picture is swimming. “It is while I am swimming that most of the images that then appear in my work come to my mind. When I am immerged in the water I am far away from any kind distraction. That’s how – I think- my subconscious rises back to surface”, explained Crewdson, whose pictures become less oneiric and more psychological while the shooting of series “Beneath the roses” goes on.
“One of the parts of the documentary that I like the most is when you see the transitions from the preparation of the set to the actual shoot, to the picture as you will see it in an art gallery” said Crewdson. “I like that you can tell how it’s messy and crowded before shooting, with over 50 people on set. But when I start shooting then, all of a sudden, everything becomes peaceful and still. It’s a magic moment and it’s in that very moment that my whole life makes sense to me”.