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November 2012: Backstage at the Making of Gregory Crewdson’s Surreal Pictures

 

Untitled (The Madison) © Gregory Crewdson

by Paul Laster

Ben Shapiro’s dynamic documentary about Gregory Crewdson’s theatrical photographic works follows the imaginative artist over a 10-year period from 2000 to 2009, when Crewdson was making staged photographs for his epic Beneath the Roses series in small towns across Western Massachusetts and shooting his subsequent Sanctuary series, which he made at the famous Cinecitta studios outside of Rome.

A frank look at Crewdson’s development and creative process, which comes closer to filmmaking than traditional photography, Brief Encounters presents an in-depth view that is both inspiring and highly entertaining.

At the beginning of the film, Crewdson confesses “a preoccupation with making something perfect.” That something is his string of surreal visual narratives that take place in small town communities. A local hero, he’s continuously seen disrupting daily life to make his grand production images. “The pictures are about creating a world,” says Crewdson. “It’s really a projection of my own story.”

Working from sketches, the artist creates elaborate outdoor productions and interior stage sets to realize his cinematic ideas. Managing crews of up to 60 people—many of them from the film industry—Crewdson shoots most of his pictures at the dreamy hours of twilight. “My pictures are about a moment—a search for a moment—and in that instance my life makes sense,” the artist declares.

Untitled (Brief Encounter) © Gregory Crewdson

We learn that his father brought him to see the Diane Arbus retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art when he was 10 years old, which led to an understanding of the psychological power that photography could have. “First and foremost my photos are grounded in a kind of psychology that could be tied to my father, who was a psychoanalyst, and had a profound influence on my development,” states Crewdson.

The film also reveals offbeat moments, such as Crewdson’s participation in an ‘80s punk rock band, The Speedies, whose notable hit song “Let Me Take Your Photo” was used 25 years later for a Hewlett Packard commercial. Still speaking from a punk point of view, Crewdson says, “The whole process of making pictures is deeply related to failure.”

However, Brief Encounters only shows Crewdson succeeding. His pictures have the “production values of a movie,” says his former teacher and celebrated photographer Laurie Simmons, while Aperture’s Melissa Harris defines him as “marvelously obsessive.” Meticulous in the making, everything he completes has a “Midas touch.”

Compiling photos from Crewdson’s youth with photos of his magical making, Shapiro’s heartfelt film captures the essence of an artist whose whole existence has been to expose a dreamlike vision that comes from deep within an offbeat urban and rural upbringing. Marvelously revealed in the film, we see a nurtured life that’s troubled, but delightfully exorcised through the making of art.

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters is on view at the Film Forum in New York through November 13, prior to the documentary’s national release.

Gregory Crewdson on the set of the photograph Untitled (Birth) as seen in Ben Shapiro’s documentary
GREGORY CREWDSON: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS.  Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

Gregory Crewdson on the set of the photograph Untitled (Twin Beds) as seen in Ben Shapiro’s documentary
GREGORY CREWDSON: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

Gregory Crewdson (on ladder) on the set of the photograph Untitled (Ophelia) as seen in Ben Shapiro’s documentary
GREGORY CREWDSON: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

Untitled (Birth) © Gregory Crewdson

Untitled (The Madison) © Gregory Crewdson

Untitled (Ophelia) © Gregory Crewdson

Untitled (Twin Beds) © Gregory Crewdson

Untitled (Worthington Street) © Gregory Crewdson

 

Paul Laster

Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.

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