Every once in a while Gregory Crewdson stages a departure from the script, to produce bodies of work apparently at odds with his more readily recognisable tableaux. In the series Fireflies, for example, he photographed – repeatedly and in sombre monochrome – the flickerings, pulses and trails of light left by the insects during their twilit mating dances. Arrested by the camera, their glowing tracks and patterns were unpredictable, spontaneous and to an important degree (even when trapped in Crewdson’s nets or jars) uncontrolled by the photographer; the pictures were excessive: recording again and again minor variations, flits; they had the feel of a solitary project, one made alone, and still, in the balm of a late summer evening; they renounced narrative, psychology, drama and even colour. In all these respects Fireflies belied its author.

Plate 11 – from Sanctuary © Gregory Crewdson

Crewdson of course is well-known – ‘globally-famous’ is probably more accurate – for elaborately crafted and adeptly contrived pictorial psycho-dramas that trade in the productive tensions that reside in the differences between making, and taking, photographs. A typical picture from the series Beneath the Roses, for example, might feature one or more adolescents apprehended during some unspecified suburban, down-at-heel, faintly bleak drama. Perhaps there will be some bare flesh and the suggestion of sexual tension; odds on, it will be dusk; chances are, the players will be mute; without fail, the whole will be lit as perfectly and as flagrantly as if to be shot for a movie.

Plate 14 – from Sanctuary © Gregory Crewdson

And now Crewdson is confounding expectations once more. His most recent work, Sanctuary, collates sequences of stilled and unpeopled black and white landscape photographs, all of which were made at the famed Cinecitta film studios outside Rome. Listen to him talk, and it is hard to escape the impression that the work represents some kind of antidote to the arduous megalomania and exhausting contrivances that characterise the working method that has made him one of art photography’s most financially sucessful exponents. “It was one of those moments that come few and far between when I saw the whole project: small-scale black and white photographs of the emptied out sets.”

The work can be seen in a touring exhibtion opening in Rome this week, and in an accompanying publication featuring 41 prints from the project. Crewdson notes that he wanted to make use of the ‘inherent quietness’ of the disused sets – perhaps there is a parallel with his description of himself as a ‘silent onlooker’ to the Fireflies. Either way, his approach here seems a world removed from his more customary directorial and controlling role.

Plate 21 – from Sanctuary © Gregory Crewdson

Though he admits to using wetting down and fog machines to achieve certain specific effects, in the main the pictures are deliberately ‘straight.’ Furthermore the contrasts tend to appear toned down; the views are often distanced by generous foreground; and the skies are frequently flat – pictorial means of emphasising the absence of drama and event. The pictures are marked by restraint.

It could perhaps be argued that Crewdson is to an extent treading overly familiar territory: scenes of urban dereliction and decay have been a photographic mainstay since the nineteenth century… but maybe the Romantic and the picturesque will prove to be like the poor – always with us. Certainly, his decision to use black and white is an acknowldegment of that heritage. But, that said, Sanctuary’s endeavour is quickened by the po-faced irony of its project, its deadpan celebration of artifice and illusion. Many of the sets are photographed to reveal the scaffolding that props up the painted ‘walls’. And the ‘buildings’ are often those that were used for the filming of the HBO / BBC mini-series, the toga-fest that was ‘Rome.’ The pictures, then , are of the ruined (Roman) remains of Ancient (ruined) Rome.

Maybe it is this arch play of meaning that guarantees the work its freedom from redundancy… or is it the reserve of the compositions, the subtlety of the tonal variations, and the extravagant sensitivity of the printing?

Guy Lane

Sanctuary – Gregory Crewdson (Abrams, $60)

Gagosian Gallery
Via Francesco Crispi 16
00187 Rome
February 3 – March 5, 2011