Contemporary art Features USA

Not such a brief encounter

A new film reveals the complex, lengthy set-up that takes place before the photographer Gregory Crewdson takes each shot

Setting up the shot for Untitled (Birth) (Photo: Cosi Theodoli-Braschi)

The director Ben Shapiro’s film “Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounter”, featuring the highly regarded fine-art photographer who uses an entire film crew to make a single image, opened at the end of October in New York. The film was made over a ten-year period, beginning when Shapiro made a short film about the artist for a US Public Broadcasting Service show. As the director tells it: “That first shoot was a single weekend, and Gregory was busy, but he did offer complete and friendly access from the start. A couple of years later, I was asked to make a half-hour film about him. That went well, and Gregory saw how I represented his process and how I worked on his set, so when I decided I wanted to keep on filming him, he was fine with that.”

If the point of art is to make the everyday unfamiliar, then Crewdson is in a line of artists (from Edward Hopper in painting to David Lynch in film and Tom Waits in music) who subvert perceived ideas of picket-fence middle America to create scenarios that suggest something far removed from the American dream is going on just out of sight, out of earshot or in the moments before the viewer encounters the piece. His work—particularly in the “Beneath the Roses” series, the making of which between 2002 and 2008 forms the backbone of the film—moves between domestic interiors, car parks, motels, bars and street scenes. The subjects appear to be in a state of crisis, suffering from dissatisfaction with their lot in life or emerging from deeply unsettling circumstances.

Shapiro’s film reveals the elaborate planning that goes into the making of the shots. When Crewdson works, it looks as though a film is being made; he has a director of photography and numerous technicians who construct sets, rig lighting and even liaise with the local authorities to have street signs taken down and roads closed. And his attention to detail is exacting, including complex lighting set-ups that balance with the natural light at the so-called “magic hour”, the moment at dawn or dusk when the ambient light creates an ethereal, unworldly hue. He will even wait for an expected snowfall and fill in unwanted tyre-tracks to maintain a vista of freshly fallen snow. After the shoot is over, Crewdson and his technicians, having taken multiple shots with tiny variations in the actors’ poses, or the introduction or removal of various props, will often select favoured sections of different takes. The camera is locked down, so the frame remains the same, meaning that individual elements can be added or removed as he sees fit.

Crewdson’s father was a psychoanalyst who practised from the basement of the family home. Talking about what may have influenced his work, the photographer recalls listening through the floor, knowing that something secret and private was going on below, but not quite understanding what. He also remembers being taken, as a child, to see a show of photographs by Diane Arbus; her startling, psychologically off-kilter portraits had a lasting effect.

Asked if he thinks Crewdson could, or would, make a film, Ben Shapiro demurs. “I know what [films] he says has influenced him, but he is interested in exactly one moment, and that’s not the approach of a film-maker,” the director says. “Film is all about the experience of passing through time, and the movement from scene to scene. Gregory’s work is all about a particular instant crystallised in a single powerful image.”

Not that there aren’t attempts to persuade him. “He and I once [held] a meeting with producers,” Shapiro says, “in the hope that they would fund my film, but what they really wanted [to do] was to convince him to direct, and one incentive was to throw a bit of money at the documentary about him. That was a pass.”

The film ends with Crewdson discovering run-down, disused sets at the Cinecittà film studios in Rome, once the home of Federico Fellini (who had an apartment constructed on one of the sound stages) and now littered with the remains of street scenes from Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”. Crewdson is anxious to use them for new work. But not for moving images. The photographer who acts like a film-maker is making the old into something new, stopping time, making things stay still.

Gregory Crewdson:?Brief Encounter is showing at New York’s Film Forum (until November 13). For more details, see www.gregorycrewdsonmovie.com

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