Book Review: ‘Sanctuary’, Gregory Crewdson

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The photographs of Gregory Crewdson that we are probably most familiar with are the large-format colour tableaux from the Twilight series. Looking like stills from movies about suburban horrors or uncanny domestic settings, their construction is also on a cinematic scale. They are made by a large crew that lights up the location as thoroughly as any Hollywood movie.

Cover of Gregory Crewdson's SanctuaryI found a copy of his monograph Sanctuary (Abrams, 2010) browsing in a remainders bookstore that was closing down (a good price on the last copy, but that’s two layers of book-sadness in a place like that). The pictures look on the surface to be a project in a different direction: they’re in black & white, shot with minimal crew and set design, with barely any human figures. But the set design is already in front of him; the subject of the series is the Cinecittà studios in Rome. New York Times Film critic A.O. Scott has an introductory essay that outlines many of Crewdson’s concerns that remain in Sanctuary, among them the idea of dreaming, or of the aftermath of dreaming: “what is left behind when the movie has wrapped and the cast and crew have departed? […] What is left of the world we dreamed up after we awaken?” (10)

Plate 22 of Gregory Crewdson's Sanctuary

The large-format book has 41 subtly-toned prints of these abandoned backlots. Some of them at first look like old European streets, until, for example you see over a wall the scaffolding of another building, maybe from a different era. The photographs are full of layers. Tonally, there is a real sense of depth, with space and distance being signalled by a mix of dark and pale tones. So many of the these pictures are constructed as frames-in-frames: a doorway opening to the light on another wall, collapsed brickwork in an archway through which you see a hill of wild grass and another building in the distance, an abandoned medieval house behind which sits a block of flats. More doorways, going nowhere into other doorways and passages. As A.O. Scott notes, the work is a “foray into documentary”, but unlike the architecture that artists like Atget saw, these buildings are not real. But their “material presence” is “undeniable”.

With these pictures, in style more straight that his earlier work, Crewdson still manages to evoke an interplay between reality and fiction, artifice and naturalness. A note in the book that the pictures don’t represent the normal state of the studios, that Crewdson asked that maintenance be held over while he made the photographs, also undermines any sense that what we are looking at is the actual state of things. In using this location, Crewdson allows us to see the facades of where cinematic fantasies are made; he also allows another way to be at the border between dreaming and being awake.

Nikon-Walkey Photojournalism Awards 2013

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I went recently to the opening of the Nikon-Walkley press photo awards touring show at the Adelaide Festival Centre Artspace Gallery, on until 16 February. The event was preceded by a symposium on new media and photography. Directed mainly at tertiary media students, the discussion skirted around issues of photojournalism, education, interning, and so on. Photojournalist Nick Moir shared some of his experience shooting conflict. Picture editor Emma Brasier talked about the importance of credibility and reliability. Fivethousand editor Angela Schilling emphasised the importance of interning and cultivating experience. Greg Ackland, photography lecturer from Adelaide TAFE gave a view into his own curiosity and interests by talking about how artists like Adam Magyar and Daniel Crooks were using technology and photography to create, in his words, “innovative and quirky things”. Ackland hardly outlined a straightforward pathway into photojournalism, but he did take the discussion into the poetic. The assembled and generally enthusiastic media students responded well to both the practicalities of the journalists and the curiosity of the artists. The expansion of documentary practice into the poetic is a broader topic for another time, but it was gratifying to see it get a working out in this forum.

The main reason for the event itself, the Awards, showed us a more strictly-defined set of images. The images on the walls were mostly examples of straight photojournalism around a variety of topics in the news. There was a series on the rebellion in Syria from Ed Giles, a look at a little-known conflict in Burma by Steve Tickner, some strong news images from Australia and Hong Kong by Brian Massey. There was a combination of individual images and photographs in series, something we don’t see enough with news pictures. Most of the images are strong and striking; they and their stories deserve to be looked at more closely.

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[Flickr page for the 2013 Nikon-Walkley Photojournalism Awards]

What I found most striking was the number of images that dealt with the issue of asylum-seekers, a fraught issue in Australia made more complicated in the public imagination by the Australian Government’s stance of obfuscation about boat arrivals.

Kate Geraghty’s photograph of asylum seekers showing the camera their IDs, for example, goes a long way towards personalizing and humanizing them, not just by showing their faces, but their names on their cards. It gainsays the typical incognito position that such people are often placed in (often for claims of privacy) and makes a direct plea for them to be known and individualized.

Barat Ali-Batoor’s photo essay of a journey of a group of Hazara asylum-seekers attempting the journey to Australia by boat is striking not just because the pictures show the actual attempt (getting a call at midnight about the boat being ready, people at sea popping up from under the decking for fresh air, lifejacketed passengers calling for help in the rain as their boat takes on water), but for the fact that Ali-Batoor himself is an asylum-seeker. It’s a view from the inside of the experience. Ali-Batoor eventually made it Australia.

What is interesting about a lot of this year’s Walkley images is that they were first published in the The Global Mail, a recently established news site from Australia that provide an independent look at issues with longform and multimedia storytelling. AubreyBelford, for example, has a story about meeting Ali-Batoor. Unfortunately it looks like the philanthropic support that the Global Mail has relied on so far needs to be replaced by another source of funds. Part of the strength of the Walkleys is that a publication like The Global Mail created a space for longer stories, extended analysis, and a novel use of images. It is a fascinating and valuable experiment that ought to continue.

Alice Blanch: Landscapes in film

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It’s appropriate that my first encounter with Alice Blanch was not with the artist herself, but with some of her old darkroom supplies I picked up at a photo fair. They were sold to me by a friend of hers who also handed me a leaflet for some wet-plate workshops that Alice was running. Since then she’s continued to exhibit work widely and run more workshops.

I was lucky enough to have Alice come talk with one of my photo classes recently, and aside from the energy and commitment already evident from her many projects, she brings with her a lot of generosity. She spoke freely and enthusiastically about her technique, her work, and its progression towards what characterises much of it now: cloudy arboreal landscapes shot on film with Box Brownies. She’s called one series the ‘Box Brownie Equivalents’ making her references to Alfred Stieglitz’s work clear. One thing she has done with colour and black-and-white film in the box brownies is to wind the film on unevenly so that the frames overlap while at the same time moving the camera horizontally across the landscape she is photographing. This creates dreamlike panoramas of the same horizon, but one that is layered across itself multiple times like a giant curtain.

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[Alice Blanch, ‘Box Brownie Colour Panorama #10′ Edition of 5]

The grain in the film is palpable, and made more so by the size and quality of the final inkjet prints. The photographs don’t push for high-resolution transcription of the world; the opposite in fact. The final images retain traces of their silver-halide origins. Alice Blanch’s love of darkroom work is evident in some other approaches too: she makes images on large-format film with pinholes, tintypes, she prints the uneven edges of the film, she makes contact prints.

One of the qualities of Alice’s photographs is the openness they have to accident and chance. This is probably one of the defining characteristics of a certain thread of post-digital darkroom photography. In the way that painting was freed of the need to be realist with the emergence of photography itself, now film photography is free to accept and celebrate the imperfections when they happen. I’m not making an argument for the technical veracity of digital over film one way or the other, just observing a particular and prevalent approach.

The webby sky in this picture isn’t some new species of cloud; it’s the result of forgetting to tap the developing tank in between agitations to stop air bubbles from sticking to the film. A mistake, but an evocative and surreal one.

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[Alice Blanch, ‘You and Me #4′ 50x70cm, Ed of 3]

The subject matter of Alice Blanch’s photographs – the sky, clouds, mountains – indicate that she’s listening to the landscape. Their style indicates that she’s also listening to the film. Together they remind us that it’s not just what we look at: how we look at something can be evocative and beautiful.

Alice Blanch has just opened an exhibition of some of her work at the Queensland Centre for Photography.

What is a Rolling Stone cover for?

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The August 2013 Rolling Stone cover photograph of accused Boston Bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev looks like any of the multitude of selfies that appear on instagram every minute. A young man leans back against a wall as he looks into the camera with almost-raised eyebrows. This studied insouciance, along with his curly hair and light beard lend the image an air of glamour. The subsequent controversy around the use of the image came from the iconicity imbued by being on the cover. This cover, though, the Rolling Stone cover. The photograph wasn’t new — it had been published in May in the New York Times.

Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi’s defence of the the cover responds to two objections: that the iconic placement on the cover confers Tsarnaev a glamour he does not deserve, and that it makes him look too handsome. I agree with Taibbi’s response: that many people don’t understand the amount of quality journalism that comes from Rolling Stone, that it’s important to understand that “nice, polite, sweet-looking young kids” can perpetrate horrible crimes and that it is “Tsarnaev’s very normalcy and niceness that is the most monstrous and terrifying thing about him.”

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[left: The August 2013 Rolling Stone cover, right: Tsarnaev arrest by Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Sean Murphy, from Boston Magazine]

What Taibbi doesn’t address is the source of some of the objection: the iconic status of the Rolling Stone cover itself.  It was the conferral of iconicity and glamour that Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Sean Murphy was reacting to when he leaked on-the-scene photographs of a bloody and defeated Tsarnaev as a riposte to the Rolling Stone cover. He states clearly that “an image like this on the cover of Rolling Stone, we see it instantly as being wrong”. Ian Crouch of The New Yorker addresses the idea of the cover and reminds us that Charles Manson was on it in 1970—but this was over forty years ago. The overwhelming proportion of covers since then have been of music and screen celebrities. What I find interesting here is how specific this context is. Most of the images we consume come to us in a feed, a stream, a flood. We see pictures for fleeting moments before they sweep past. Not only that—anyone with a tumblr feed knows that it can be nearly impossible to dig up accurate attributions for individual images as they flow by if the people posting them don’t take pains to do so. Arguably the most common state of images on the web is their statelessness, their lack of context. So to have this picture generate such a reaction because it’s seen to be situated in the wrong context says something about the implicit ways we understand images.

John Berger makes the point in his documentary Ways of Seeing that the reproducibility of images has uprooted them from their contexts as, for example, religious icons (that being the original meaning of and icon) and placed them unanchored into our living rooms and TV screens. Rolling Stone shows that contexts still matter, even as images float ever more freely before us.

Update, 15 August 2013, along with other revisions:
A tweet from media scholar David Campbell alerted me to an analysis of the Rolling Stone cover from former Rolling Stone art director Andy Cowles on his coverthink blog. He makes a visual comparison between the Rolling Stone covers of Tsarnaev and Manson and points out that while Rolling Stone “are quite within their brand and remit to write this story, and perfectly entitled to put this picture on the cover”, nevertheless the glossy logo and the stylish selfie serve to reinforce the narcissistic self-styled glamour of its subject.

Side Effects: Your reaction to the photos may vary

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Spoilers ahead: Unless you’ve seen Side Effects you should probably stop reading. It’s a movie that deploys its share of plot twists.

There’s a moment in Side Effects (2013) that is reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s descent into paranoia in The Conversation. Jude Law’s pyschiatrist character, Jonathan Banks, suspects that the patient he has been treating, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is faking her depression. Jonathan thinks that Emily has murdered her husband under the guise of the somnambulatory side effects of her medication. Because Jonathan is caught up in the negative publicity of the new medication his reputation starts to suffer. While he investigates, his life unravels. His medical practice cuts him loose and he spends long hours at home poring over medical journals and newspaper reports. Near this Conversation-esque juncture his wife Diedre walks in and confronts him with some incriminating photographs of an affair with Emily.

She shows him the packet of photos: there are some of Jonathan talking with Emily in some swanky hotel lobby. She is holding a pink-striped bag. A subsequent photo shows Emily posing on a bed in lingerie, looking at the camera, the same bag on the edge of the bed providing the clear implication that she is wearing the recent purchase. This is enough for Diedre, who is already on edge over his obsession with Emily. After Diedre leaves, Jonathan is not quite as alone as Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul, reduced to pulling apart his apartment in search of the bugs he knows are there. Nevertheless, it’s a low point that he must struggle through.

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Side Effects is a film that toys with the idea of epistemology at various levels. How do we the audience know what is going on (the film leads us first one way then the other)? How does Jonathan know—aren’t his investigations getting increasingly hysterical and desperate? How do drug companies know what works (this critical look at big pharma emerges as Jonathan gets recruited into a running a drug trial that he puts Emily into and as the manipulation of the company’s stocks comes into play as well)? And back to these photographs: how does Diedre know that he’s having an affair? Well, they show them together and then Emily in her sexy undies. But Diedre doesn’t evaluate the evidence very carefully. For a start, the pictures have two completely different points of view. The first one is surreptitious: two people talking some distance away, apparently unaware of the third party taking the picture. The second photograph is framed much more closely with Emily posing directly for the camera. Jonathan might be the implied photographer of the lingerie picture but he could not be for the one in the lobby. If some private investigator is meant to be the author of the shots then the second one is too intimate for that to be consistent either. Oh, wait, maybe Emily planned the blackmail all along and she got an associate to shoot them in the lobby while later giving her camera to Jonathan to document their tryst. But there is no picture of Jonathan in his slinky briefs completing the circle. It ought not to be a convincing scam, especially as the lobby meeting is precipitated by Emily finding Jonathan and Diedre together at a café and asking to talk to him for ten minutes.

It’s a weak link in the chain of convincing lies that entraps Jonathan. We the audience know it’s a set-up because we’ve seen the secret pictures being taken. It’s such a weak link that I am amazed that Diedre doesn’t see through the fraud immediately and use it as a reason to rally to his side rather than abandon him as she does. But let me put aside this small annoyance at the movie’s plotting to talk about what it says about the value of photographs as evidence (and on the whole this is one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year). Even if the photos had been more realistically ambiguous, the point would have been the same: Diedre already has an interpretive framework about the situation that guides how she reads the pictures. She has enough prior frustration with him for just about any range of pictures to become the catalyst for her leaving. We can see this in her first scene, the one where Emily appears desperate for a quick chat. Maybe on examination the presentation of the pictures is a little unconvincing, but maybe I should just stop whining and allow them their diegetic role as visual misdirections. Perhaps we shouldn’t have even seen the photos and I would have been happy with their role as plot-advancing maguffins (like the unseen blueprints or plans from North by Northwest or the mysterious glowing suitcase from Pulp Fiction).

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There is another time, though, that photographic evidence is brought to bear on the case. This is before Emily and her accomplice, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) try the photo blackmail. Jonathan, still acting as Emily’s doctor after her not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity exoneration but convinced of her culpability, conducts an interview where tells her that he’s administering a drug that will cause her to get drowsy and candid. He records the session on video. Emily does gets drowsy and says nothing incriminating. But he’s given her only saline, and caught her fake reaction to the fake drug on tape. Vindicated, he goes to the State’s Attorney. Here the interpretive framwork is legal rather than personal. Double indemnity, illegal drugging, he refused to work with the prosecution before — the pictures are unfaked recordings of fake behaviour but it doesn’t matter. The legal framework can’t use them. Like the lobby/lingerie pictures, the actual content of this video evidence is irrelevant. The pictures only work if they can fit into the right context.

It’s a trope of the wrongful-accusation story (although this film isn’t just that). We know (or we think we know) what’s going on. The protagonist thinks he knows what’s going on. If this were all there was there would be just opinions that didn’t rise to the level of belief. Having a nugget of something solid like photographs helps to anchor this belief (though as any detective story reader will tell you, it can disintegrate in a heartbeat), but if the right framework doesn’t exist for anyone else then the nugget is fool’s gold. At any rate the well-calibrated conflict of these two forces makes the protagonist’s vindication almost possible, always desperate, and riveting to watch and hope for.

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