Crewdson at the Photographer’s Gallery 2017
At first glance the new body of work from Gregory Crewdson, Cathedral of the Pines, currently showing at London’s Photographer’s Gallery, could easily seem like more of the same. Large format meticulously crafted Lynchian tableaux inviting the viewer to step into a familiar and yet unfamiliar world and create a speculative cerebral narrative. Cathedral of the Pines is not so easy to read and has not been without its critics driven no doubt by Crewdson’s previous oeuvre that overtly peered into America’s subcutaneous mores.
At first look that seems to be the story, although this time delivered on a monochromatic pallet, whether inside or out, that depicts friends and relatives of Crewdson who reside in Becket Massachusetts, a town that appears to be buried deep in the vast forests of Berkshire County. In his youth Crewdson became connected to Becket via time spent at a family cabin in the town; as he grew it became a touchstone in times of personal dilemma. That he returned there in 2010 during a period of intimate upheaval driven by divorce and stress is key to how this work differs from that which had come before. Instead of interrogating American society by looking in on it Crewdson’s scenes have an outward gaze as if you are in his head, an insight as he makes a personal life analysis. This opens up the image narrative and goes someway to explain some of the elements that have brought criticism, the loudest comments regard the amount of nudity, especially female. The argument that there has to be gender balance for correctness sake is not convincing, this even handed ideology cannot influence or divert a story away from its individual truth, Cathedral is not an example of discrimination or prejudice as suggested. Crewdson’s time in Becket, some four years making these images from 2010, was by his own admission a deep reflection on his family break up and his arrival in middle age with suitcases packed; it was also one of grounding though a rigorous ritual of walking, wild swimming and cross country skiing seeking a reconnection to his birth as an artist. The women portrayed all seem affected by the solitude of the place, the muted old master colours of browns and greens against the white of the ice and snow adds to the monotone solemnity of each shot, a reflection on both sides of the separation, and how the story teller felt laid bare and vulnerable looking solace in the form that had taken it away. Many of the sitters seem divorced of connection to others in the frame, although Pregnant Woman on a Porch and Sisters would imply this as not so. Emotionless expressions, in part due to long exposures from the use of large format cameras where mega stillness in required, add to the sadness that exudes from much of the work, a feeling that heartbreak is near. Some narratives we all face, Father and Son depicts an older man lying on his bed with a young boy portrayed in a bedside mirror; a reflection on generational passing on, and for Crewdson a connection to his own father who first brought the family to Becket and passed on the love of place and nature as a method of meditation.
The gloom begins to lift as Crewdson establishes a new life, love and base in the town having moved his studio from New York. His new partner Juliane Hiam played a pivotal role in the photographer’s revival, her parents who are long term residents of Becket, loaned their house for interior shoots; Hiam herself appears in an image that seems to signifies that new start were she gazes both into and out of a mirror as if seeing the present and future. She was also present the day Cathedral of the Pines as an idea was born. Out skiing one day in 2012 they happened on a sign of that title, the real Cathedral of the Pines is a memorial deep in the forest dedicated to service personnel. Such personal work has given a new emotional aspect and depth to Crewdson’s work, one that opens a room that the viewer is invited into to dress with their own emotional cultural understanding or experience of life.