Gregory Crewdson: ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ at the Photographer’s Gallery

Laura Garmeson

Once seen, Gregory Crewdson’s eerie, penumbrous photographs are difficult to forget. The acclaimed American artist creates the kind of visual landscape every photographer strives for: one that leaves a lasting imprint on the mind. Observing the laws of the so-called ‘magic hour’ – the hinge of time just before dawn and after dusk – his photographs dance along the line between nature and artifice; the mundane and the sinister; the suburban and the ethereal. His latest series, Cathedral of the Pines, is now on display at the Photographers’ Gallery. Prepare to enter a strange, liminal world.

There is more than a touch of the cinematic to the photography of Gregory Crewdson. His shots are planned and assembled with painstaking precision, usually requiring a crew of 50-60 people to make them happen, and the resulting large-scale digital prints often resemble movie stills. His preferred setting is small-town US suburbia, but the storytelling in his photographs undermines the familiar to create jarring and ambiguous scenes. In Beneath the Roses (2005) a man sits in an apparently well-to-do house that looks like it’s been trashed. Elsewhere a woman stares vacantly at a lawn surrounded by garbage. In Ophelia (2000) a figure lies semi-submerged in a flooded living room, staring glassy-eyed into the distance as the plush furniture around her soaks. These are images designed to unsettle.

Gregory Crewdson - Father and Son, 2013 © Gregory Crewdson, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery
Cathedral of the Pines is Crewdson’s first major solo exhibition in the UK, and sees the photographer return to his favourite aesthetic mood – the suburban uncanny – in a series of thirty-one beautifully rendered prints shot between 2013 and 2014. The exhibition booklet describes the images as ‘located in the dystopian landscape of the anxious American imagination’, but they also inhabit a real landscape, that which surrounds Becket, Massachusetts, a remote rural town encircled by forest. The eponymous ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ is even a real place. But the thick layer of dread that saturates everything is all Crewdson.

Gregory Crewdson - The Motel, 2014 © Gregory Crewdson, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery
Crewdson’s interest in human interaction with nature becomes apparent during the exhibition – a point of departure from other work. Many of these photographs are given added texture and depth by the scores of poker-straight pine trees in the background, the twisted rocks by a river or the crust of snow on a frozen lake. Although most of his pictures feature human figures as focal points, hovering between portraits and landscapes, in this series his subjects are often dwarfed by their natural surroundings. In Beneath the Bridge, a large stone structure arches over a river, where two nude women stand blankly by the bank as though in miniature. In The Pickup Truck another naked couple sit in the back of a truck in a clearing hemmed in by trees. The subjects’ nudity and the overbearing scale of the natural setting give the pictures an air of intense vulnerability; as a viewer you feel anxious for them somehow.

Crewdson has a way of turning everything into a stage set for his uncanny psychodramas. Some of his pictures are literal set pieces, taken on a soundstage, which enhances the artifice of the end image. But in Cathedral of the Pines, described by Crewdson as his most personal work to date, a strong sense of place has been retained even in the interior shots (many of the models are his friends and family members, along with various local inhabitants of the town). These scenes are of living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens – all studiously nondescript – and his models all share the same static, vacant expression. Often compared to filmmaker David Lynch, Crewdson admits taking inspiration from the Lynchian marriage of the grotesque and the banal, and remains hugely influenced by the visual language of cinema. ‘I make photos that are between film and something else,’ he stated in a 2012 interview with the Paris Review. ‘For me, art is a way to achieve a sort of ideal.’

Gregory Crewdson - The Shed, 2013 © Gregory Crewdson, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery
In this in-between world, where the interplay between natural and artificial light creates an otherworldly atmosphere, the gaze of the photographer’s lens appears to be intruding into some of life’s most private, mundane moments. But the deliberately staged quality of the pictures also renders this intruder-like quality void. The sitters’ faces betray no feeling, and, free from the moorings of emotional normality, the uncanny is let loose. You can try and pin it down, but you’re bound to fail.
Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines is on display at the Photographers’ Gallery until 8 October. Tickets are £4, or free before midday.

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