Gregory Crewdson

Gregory Crewdson at work. (zeitgeist films photo / November 27, 2012)

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters

Starts Nov. 30, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006,


The art photographer Gregory Crewdson makes some of the most elaborate and expensive-to-produce pictures in the world. Crewdson's productions are like a movie set — complete with make-up artists, crane operators, prop specialists, lighting experts and stage designers. He creates richly detailed images of mysterious isolation and mill-town grimness. You might recognize some of the scenes. Much of his work was taken in towns like Pittsfield, in western Massachusetts, not that far from here. The artist and the costly, labor-intensive and mind-blowingly meticulous process he uses to create his photos are the subject of Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, a documentary showing at Real Art Ways in Hartford on Nov. 30.

Most of us tend to think of photography as capturing a kind of documentary reality, freezing an actual moment. But Crewdson's images are elevated fictions. You could probably look at a Crewdson picture in a museum and think it was an amazingly lit piece of photojournalism. You'd be very wrong, as this film makes clear.

Crewdson was raised in Brooklyn. His father was a psychoanalyst who saw patients in the basement of the family home. As a kid, Crewdson and his siblings didn't quite understand what psychotherapy was about or what happened in that office. "What we did know was that whatever was happening there was secret, and was a mystery to us," says Crewdson. In Crewdson's work, the secrets that people carry with them — and those we imagine for them — are ripe with possible narratives.

The figures — a young mother and her newborn on a motel bed seen through a snowy and bleak window; a man pushing grocery cart of junk down a desolate street; a woman smoking a cigarette seated on the curb outside a drab bar — seem pensive and sad. They have the kind of emotional dislocation one sees in the paintings of Edward Hopper.

"The pictures are about creating a world," says Crewdson. "I've always had images inside my head that I wanted to get out in the world."

Crewdson calls the down-on-their-luck towns of western Massachusetts the "backdrops for a more submerged psychological drama" in which he explores his own "anxiety and fears and desires." He doesn't really ever articulate what those are, but from looking at the pictures in the film, one gets the sense that motherhood and domesticity are among them. Those are two subjects that tend to traditionally connote comfort and warmth, but which are shadowed with portent in Crewdson's pictures. There's little said about his own mother in the film.

Crewdson played in a semi-successful new wave band in the '80s. He suffered from dyslexia, and says he found it hard to read and study. He got his MFA at Yale, where he now teaches.

Prints of Crewdson's photos sell for as much as $150,000. But they must cost about that much to produce. Brief Encounters shows technicians painstakingly recreating every detail of a drab suburban kitchen scene, hiring fire trucks to hose down streets, driving through lots with smoke machines, hoisting powerful lights up on cranes, all to capture a particular kind of spectral quality of light at dusk that's central to Crewdson's work. It seems like an awful lot of effort. But you might have the same thought if you ever sat around a movie set or a recording session. These things take time.

"Unlike a movie, a photograph is frozen and so everything has to feel exactly right," says Crewdson.

It's a case of art imitating life, or maybe of art imitating art that imitates life. Some of Crewdson's pictures bring to mind the peculiar colors and suburban wastelands of William Eggleston's photos. But where Eggleston just drives around and finds his subjects — snap — Crewdson manufactures these scenes, sketching out plans, scouting locations, casting locals to "act" in them, carefully blasting the sets in brilliant, haunting light.

The moments of "quiet alienation" that attract Crewdson are also moments of provocative mystery for the viewer. It's true, we don't know what the people in these pictures are thinking, but we imagine a kind of isolation and bleakness.

"I love that dynamic between beauty and sadness," says Crewdson.

Brief Encounters ultimately serves to heighten the aesthetic mystery surrounding Crewdson's work. The documentary makes Crewdson's art more impressive by spotlighting the mind-boggling artifice behind each shot.

"Photography always has an association with an intent to preserve a moment, to hold on to something," says Crewdson. "My pictures are about a search for the perfect moment."

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