Fine-art photographer Gregory Crewdson is known for his elaborate tableaux of small-town American homes and neighborhoods. He has published eight books, shown internationally, and his work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim, LACMA, Art Institute of Chicago and more. Born in Brooklyn, Crewdson lives in Massachusetts and is a professor at the Yale University School of Art. His newest collection, Cathedral of the Pines (2013-14), is showing at Gagosian Gallery, New York.
Writer, director and producer Matthew Weiner is best known as creator of the series Mad Men (2007-15). He also served as a writer and producer of The Sopranos and made his feature film directorial debut in 2013 with Are You Here. He has garnered many awards for his work, including three Golden Globes, nine Emmys and more, including a place on Time’s 2011 list of the 100 “Most Influential People in the World” and The Atlantic’s 21 “Brave Thinkers.”
In his newest series, Cathedral of the Pines, photographer Gregory Crewdson returns to his home in rural Massachusetts to stage elaborate interior and exterior tableaux against summer’s overgrown forests and winter’s bright snow. His images evoke a dreamlike hyperreality in which subjects appear suspended in a state of anxiety, often isolated or in repose, while light filters through doorways, windows and treetops. To create his signature atmosphere, Crewdson requires intensive production, similar to that on film sets—a full crew, location scouting, motion picture lighting, set-building and posed models. Cathedral of the Pines is his first body of work since 2011’s Sanctuary and comes after a period of intense personal upheaval. Crewdson speaks with friend Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, about this process.
Matthew Weiner: First of all, I got your [behind-the-scenes] pamphlet for Cathedral of the Pines in the mail, which was a great teaser. I don’t know quite how to describe it, but it felt very, very private, which was exciting to me. Then I just saw the actual pictures, and they’re incredible, as usual. I’ve asked this question before, but I’m going to ask you again: going from the basic tradition of photography into full productions, what drove you to have this elaborate control?
Gregory Crewdson: It’s a great question. I would identify myself as a storyteller in a very limited sense of the term. One reason I’ve always been drawn to photography is because it is limited, as I think I am limited in a certain way. Unlike you, I’m not responsible for plot or dialogue or motivation, just purely responsible for the singular image.
I think that’s the way I sort of see the world anyway—in terms of frozen moments in time.
MW: You talk about these things in terms of limitations, yet I don’t know that they’re really limited. They’re verbally limited, but in an almost Aristotelian way—they have the unity of place and time. So even if you’re not encouraging us to put these photographs together in a linear way, there is a unity of story there going on. There are characters for sure.
GC: When I say storyteller, I suppose what I mean by story is my core obsessions, desires, fears, anxieties and that sort of murky subject or content of the work.
“Right at that moment, the entire body of work
became clear to me. There are very few
moments in my life where there’s a complete
moment of aesthetic awakening.”
— Gregory Crewdson
Critically acclaimed writer-director David Lynch is known for films including Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001), as well as the TV series Twin Peaks (1990-91). His films stray toward the surreal, with dreamlike imagery and structure, and are often set in small-town America.
MW: I wonder what the story is, particularly with this series. I’m always struck by the juxtaposition of the natural world and the psychology and interior experience of environments, financial realities, neighborhoods. This series feels like it’s taking place in a subculture, in a way. It feels less “suburban.” We talk about David Lynch a lot—Blue Velvet—there’s less of that here.
GC: Yes, for sure, and I should circle back to your first comment: when you received the booklet in the mail, your reaction was that it felt private, and that’s exactly what I was hoping for in terms of this whole body of work. In fact, there was a long period of transition before even making a single picture. So maybe I can just tell you some of that.
MW: I’d love to know what that is.
GC: I think you know that about five or six years ago my marriage ended. I moved to a church outside of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and I was in a real period of dislocation—like, complete collapse. It’s embarrassing for me to even say, but there was a period of about two years before I was even able to make a picture.
I was slowly bringing myself back to life by doing long walks on the Appalachian Trail and long-distance swims. This is all in Becket, (Massachusetts) about 30 minutes from where I live, and it’s where I used to have a family country house.
MW: So you have a childhood association with this place?
GC: Yes, I was trying to make sense of my life and reconnecting with my past and who I was as a person and as an artist.
MW: This sounds like an elaborate meditation.
GC: It was a meditation. The process of doing the long distance swims was really healing for me.
MW: What happens to your mind when you do that?
GC: It’s one of the few times where I feel like I could open up and allow myself to connect to my imagination. It’s a womb-like state, swimming in lakes.