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.
I 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)
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.