When the photographer Gregory Crewdson was growing up, in Park Slope, his psychoanalyst father’s office was in the basement of the family’s brownstone. Crewdson and his siblings were told to ignore the stream of grown-ups who marched hourly through the house, even if they were outside, playing on the stoop, and wound up face-to-face with one. But sometimes he’d lie on the wide planks of the living-room floor and wonder about conversations below. “I always tried to imagine what I heard and make pictures out of it in my mind,” Crewdson says. He is 46 now, with two kids of his own and a longish wave of graying hair. He’s recently begun seeing a therapist whose office is directly below his Greenwich Village studio, and yes, they’ve discussed what that means.
“But I could never really hear anything,” he says of his childhood eavesdropping. “All I knew was that it was a secret and that it was forbidden.” He laughs. “And there you have it. There’s my work in a nutshell.”
Crewdson produces large-scale, elaborately constructed photographs taken in and around the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where the Crewdson family has forever had a small log cabin in the woods. He has just completed a series of 32 new photographs called “Beneath the Roses,” some of which will be shown at the Luhring Augustine gallery beginning this week. Thematically, “Beneath the Roses” is a lot like “Twilight,” the series that launched Crewdson into the photographic big (up to six-figures-a-picture) leagues. In both, ordinary people in ordinary places are surreally and beautifully lit, and there’s an unease to everything, a suggestion of something lurking just outside, underneath, or possibly within the frame. Even at their most lush, Crewdson photographs are epically lonely. “There are two possible interpretations,” he says of his work. “One is the possibility of impossibility and two is the impossibility of possibility. I know there’s a sadness in my pictures. There’s this want to connect to something larger, and then the impossibility of doing so.”
Crewdson’s method of photography is highly unusual; he has not taken a picture all by himself for the past ten years, save the occasional snapshot of his kids. He works with a crew of about 40: lighting, set, production designers, and even a director of photography. For “Beneath the Roses,” there was one crew that made snow, another for rain. Crewdson is pains-takingly specific with them, personally directing the scattering of dirty, gritty snow, for example, along the side of a road.
As much as the theme of alienation persists in Crewdson’s work, so, too, does the location: Pittsfield. He is a city boy totally uninterested in the city as artistic subject. “You have to be able to see it all new every time,” Crewdson says of situating his work in one small place only, “and it’s excruciating, but it’s joyful. I feel like the artists I admire most are artists aligned with a particular geography, like Cheever, or Edward Hopper, or even Norman Rockwell, who worked in the next town over from me. And I like the separation. When I go up there, I’m going to work.” Crewdson no longer vacations in the Berkshires; he takes his family to Montauk instead.
His process goes like this: He starts by driving around and around familiar old Pittsfield and its environs until something familiar feels unique. He stops, he registers it all, and calls in his team. Then he frames, with his hands, the shot. “He tells me the physical focus of a picture,” says Rick Sands, the director of photography who’s been with him for eleven years, “and the emotional focus as well. And then we get to work.”
“Beneath the Roses” consists of four separate productions. Three were on location and are concerned primarily with broad landscapes, a somewhat new direction for Crewdson. The other was in a soundstage on which Crewdson and Co. constructed elaborate interiors.