Constructed Realities: Project 1 – Crewdson, Beauty and Depth

Watch this YouTube video about Gregory Crewdson and his work and consider the questions below.

  1. Do you think there is more to this work than aesthetic beauty?
  2. Do you think Crewdson succeeds in making his work ‘psychological’? What does this mean?
  3. What is your main goal when making pictures? Do you think there’s anything wrong with making beauty your main goal? Why or why not?

C&N coursebook – p.116

1.

In the video Crewdson states straightforwardly: “First and foremost […] it’s to make a beautiful picture […] but a purely aesthetic experience is not good enough; that needs to be undercut by something psychological.” Later he goes on to identify “a darkness” that lies underneath his pictures and also to say “I want it all to become one world upon itself”. None of this necessarily will lead to something “more” than aesthetic beauty. Even assuming you find the pictures beautiful in the first place.

Certainly, Crewdson’s photographs are very striking, with their subjects often seeming to be lit by the objects of their obsessions, but the surface is so worked – in terms of pose, lighting and colour as well as in their making reference to common popular culture derived tropes – that, to me at least, it repels any attempt to penetrate deeper. And because that surface seems to refer so strongly to fictional models – from films and other manifestations of (American) popular culture – rather than the everyday reality which we occupy there is little room for us to interpret their meaning in ways that do not loop back into a pre-existing set of narratives.

Untitled (House Fire) – Gregory Crewdson. 2004. 145.2 x 223.5 cm

The first part of the video we are asked to watch is spent on the set of picture showing teenagers picking their way along a railway track while a house burns away to one side. One of the teenagers turns to the fire; the others walk on, oblivious. Obviously we are meant to wonder what.is the relationship between the teenagers and the burning house, and also why only one of them is looking at it. The exact division of the horizontal plane into two by the telegraph pole leaves the scene in an uneasy state of compositionally symmetrical  equilibrium with the fire on one side and the kids on the other.

The sheer size of the picture also asks you to look at it in detail, to take it in, to wonder what it’s all about. The trouble is, no matter how long or how hard I stare it doesn’t seem to really be about much more than just some kids and a fire. You could maybe tack on some stuff about rural decay (the weeds on the tracks) and create some post-crisis narrative from it (the teenagers are abandoning the town/village and are heading off in search of something new/trying to escape the zombie apocalypse) but really, I don’t think so.

Ultimately, I find his pictures – those from the series “Twilight” in particular – melodramatic and humourless. It is not hard to admire the immense amount of work that goes into them and the skill with which they are made, but they don’t move me or prompt me to spend long construction narratives out of them.

McLean, Virginia – Joel Sternfeld, December 1978. 16″ x 20″

Personally, of the many available pictures with burning houses in them (and a search on google shows  there are actually two by Crewdson), I vastly prefer Joel Sternfeld’s picture of a fireman buying a pumpkin while the rest of his crew fight a blaze in the background. There is much more ambiguity about what is happening in it  (how has this fireman managed to desert his post while the fire still blazes?) the fire is just as fire-ey and orange (and staged for that matter, as the answer to my earlier question turns out to be that it’s all a training exercise). But – most importantly – it does not appear to be trying anywhere near as hard as the typically po-faced work by Crewdson: there is no thirty-strong crew at work here, just Sternfeld in his VW camper with a view camera, taking a picture of something that was going on in the part of the real world that he happened to be visiting at that moment in time.

Bate (pp 41-47) describes Jeff Wall as depicting the modern in various ways (The Mimic from 1982, with the bearded man pulling back the corner of his eye with his finger, unseen by the Chinese man in front of him, is a good example of this engagement with contemporary reality in Wall’s work) and connects this into works by Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Impressionism and Realism; he is much less complimentary in his treatment of Crewdson (pp. 50- 52) where he concludes that – at best – his picture’s stylisation creates “critical distance”, but far from invoking some sort of Brechtian “A-Effekt” the effect here is neither social nor political; rather it stirs the viewer’s memories of horror movies and other bits of popular culture (I thought of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin album sleeves) swirling in the contemporary ether.  At the centre of his consideration of Crewdson (p.51) he sums up his attitude to work of this sort: “A strategy of explicit falseness in photography tends to disrupt, ruin or even disintegrate any clear meaning.”

Badger is more concise (p. 35): “Nothing makes sense and nothing is explained.”

Even some quotes taken from around the research point (p. 116) in the course book can be read as acknowledging Crewdson’s impact and popularity without necessarily endorsing either:

  • “A less subtle form of mise-en-scène is often used in advertising and fashion photography which frequently involves a more cinematic or dramatic use of lighting.”
  • “Crewdson’s work is deliberately cinematic in style and as a result is often very popular in commercial settings.”
  • Some commentators regard this as an effective method of image-making, but for others it lacks the subtlety and nuance of Wall and DiCorcia’s work. What do you think?”

My emphases. The Art Photographic Discourse seems to position Crewdson as “other” or “not good Art”; it doesn’t matter that they are popular and financially valued, they sit outside art’s bounds. As Belsey points out, gaining entry to a profession requires learning a specific vocabulary and agreeing to a shared set of values; as I enter into this series of courses on photography, it is heartening to have affirmed that my likes and dislikes are not too far of the mark here.

 


2.

“There’s only one thing more boring than other people’s problems, Adrian – that’s other people’s dreams.” – Sue Townsend, quoted from memory by Caitlin Moran on Desert Island Discs.

“Psychological” when applied to fictions (films, say – “a Psychological Thriller”; or books “The Psychological Crime Novel” and so on) tends to imply a greater focus on the motivations of the protagonists than in ordinary fictions where the main concern is around questions of pure plot and what happens next. Instead of a whodunnit, you end up with a why-dunnit (and often know the “who” from very early on).

It can be argued that this gives (or at any rate constructs) a greater sense of depth than is found in straight, plot-driven narratives. Certainly the more you tend towards the psychological, the more likely it is that your work will be taken as “serious” or “art” or “literature” or whatever. People who take their fiction seriously tend to prefer Maigret to Poirot, or rather Simenon to Christie; when people want to elevate a “genre novelist” to the pantheon of “great authors” , they tend to emphasise the acuity of the writer’s perception of “the human soul” rather than the precision of their plotting.

However, given that Crewdson’s pictures seem completely rooted in the instant portrayed with no real sense of either a past or a future (the boy with his arm down the drain of the shower will stretch in vain forever), it is hard to see how motivation seeps into their meaning. Rather they seem to gain potential resonance from their relationship to the popular ideas of dreams as a gateway to the subconscious mind, diluted by repetition from Freud’s original 1899 “The Interpretation of Dreams”, although here the Hollywood feel of the images is possibly more easily explained through Jung’s concept of the Collective Unconscious.

But again, there doesn’t seem to be any great depth here: The psychology in Crewdson’s work doesn’t seem to go beyond the “Oedipus-Schmoedipus! What’s it matter as long as he loves his mother?” school of pop psychology. If it wasn’t for the inherent humour in the scenario, I wouldn’t be too surprised if he’s made a picture of someone standing up to give a speech at the moment  when – frozen half out of their seat – they realise that they’ve forgotten to put on their trousers…

Barthes (p.57) could be talking about Crewdson when he writes that, “Confronting millions of photographs, including those which have a good studium […] everything which happens within the frame””dies absolutely once this frame is passed beyond […] they are anaesthetised and fastened down, like butterflies”  “The frame” is used here in the cinematic sense of one picture out of a stream of many rather than to mean the box drawn round what is shown in the photograph and here that is precisely the effect of Crewdson’s frozen tableaux.

 


3.

I’ve thought quite long and hard about this one. I think the thing that has been, and still is, at the heart of what I’ve been doing with a camera is pinning down something while it is in the process of some sort of change. I am trying to salvage something of what catches my attention from the wreckage created by the passage of time. I am photographing change, or rather freezing things as they change around me. But not in a terribly po-faced sort of way, I hope.

This can take many forms:

  • My kids are hurtling through childhood towards some point when they will be “grown up”. It is so hard to remember even what they were like a week ago; photographs (like writing down things they say, or enjoy doing) help me pin down moments in this crazy onward progression; putting them together gives an idea of the rate of this change.
  • One day, a couple of years ago i caught a glimpse of myself reflected in a shop window and wondered (half seriously) “who’s that middle aged bloke?” Certainly I no longer looked like the photo on my work pass, or even like the image I had of myself (despite all the shortsighted peering into a shaving mirror etc) in my head.
  • There are things back home (Orkney) that I realise I should have photographed before they turned into something else. I don’t think that any of the shops on the main street are the same as the ones that were there twenty years ago.
  • There are things where I live now (Walthamstow) that are definitely living on borrowed time. Gentrification moves on apace, making the incoming flood of young would-be householders more of threat to the local way of life than eastern european immigrants ever were.
  • Grass grows; seasons pass; the shadows of the venetian blinds cast by the afternoon light move across the livingroom ceiling. Every day as summer turns to autumn turns to winter the sun is hitting the house from a different angle at the same time of day. Next year, it may be cloudy.
  • Or I may be somewhere else, which is another form of change to deal with.

I don’t think my primary objective in all this is to capture “beauty”, at least in part because I think that to attempt to do so – while not wrong as such –  is largely futile. Crewdson uses one historically determined (and very specific) set of things to signify beauty;  I would probably use a different set of beauty signifiers if I were to settle on beauty as a central thing in my practice.

But having read Belsey’s Post-Structuralism – A Very Short Introduction a couple of times now, I can happily accept that “Aesthetic Beauty” is a social construct with its meaning (and indeed what makes up that construct’s constituent parts) constantly changing, often radically and over very short periods of time.

There is a short dramatised essay by Oscar Wilde (it may be either The Decay of Lying  or possibly The Soul of Man under Socialism, but I have packed away my complete Wilde, prior to moving; I could look it up online I suppose, but this is an exercise, not an essay or dissertation) which states that – in absence of the text, I paraphrase – until Wordsworth and Coleridge started shouting about the beauty of the lake district, the people who lived there regarded the hills as at best a nuisance and a barrier to the easy movement of their sheep; today it is a natural park and most of the farmers’ cottages have been turned into holiday lets.  Nowadays Marilyn Monroe would be shamed into dieting by the Daily Mail while society appears to have returned to Ruskin’s position of being shocked by the existence of female pubic hair…

And so as time passes, we learn that certain things are beautiful and sometimes we learn to stop admiring the beauty in things that our ancestors found beautiful or even that we found beautiful yesterday. The beauty paradigm does not stand still.

Photographs aestheticise; photographers aestheticise. Somewhere in my reading over the last year (Bate, I think, but I’m damned if I can find it again)  I came across the story of a photographer present at Belsen when it was liberated in 1945 who caught himself composing geometrically around a stack of corpses. If you’ve learnt how to “do” aesthetics, its hard to stop yourself. Once you add in the ability of various non-beautiful things to become signifiers of a whatever aesthetic (trash aesthetic, snapshot aesthetic, heroin chic etc etc)  it is actually quite hard to take a photograph that “works” and yet is seen as being ugly in itself, rather than  a portrayal of an ugly subject. Aesthetically I simply hope that my pictures fit in with the current idea of what “looks right” for periods longer than those where they do not. More importantly now, I am trying to take photographs that will work in association with others, giving some sort of measure to all this change that surrounds and is within me.

 


Reading and References:

  • Badger, G. 2007 The Genius of Photography, London, Quadrille
  • Barthes, R. 1980  Camera Lucida  (t. Howard, R. 1981) London. Vintage
  • Bate, D. (2015) Art Photography London, Tate Publishing
  • Belsey, K. (2002) Post Structuralism – A Very Short Introduction Oxford. Oxford University Press
  • BBC Radio 4 (22/01/17) Desert Island Discs: Caitlin Moran
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