Gregory Crewdson on his new series Cathedral of the Pines

As Gregory Crewdson’s exhibition Cathedral of the Pines opens at the Photographers’ Gallery, we talk to him about his creative process, the democratic nature of photography and making his first movie

Gregory Crewdson’s photography attracts a lot of adjectives. ‘Evocative’, ‘haunting’, ‘unnerving’: these words follow Crewdson around. Over the past 25 years he has created images that are compelling though familiar, which borrow from painting and cinema to create scenes that evoke sci-fi or psychological dramas, and which are – yes – ‘haunting’.But pinning down exactly what is going on in a Crewdson image is far harder than it first appears. This is due in part to his elaborate process: to capture the unique mood of his scenes, Crewdson uses movie-like production values, famously employing a large crew.

The Shed, 2013; Banner image Mother and Daughter, 2014. All images © Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

“There’s a blur between reality and fiction in my pictures,” he says by phone from his studio in the US. “It’s not entirely fictional and it’s not entirely truthful. It’s consciously taking places that mean something to me and have connections to my life but also working with a theatrical set of conventions and cinematic images and use of heightened colour and light … all that’s put into a mix to create some kind of ‘subject of truth’, I would call it. It’s not evidential truth – it would do you no good in the court room, but does you well in the gallery.”

Cathedral of the Pines, which will be shown throughout London’s Photographers’ Gallery this summer – the first time the entire space has been given over to one artist – was created in 2013-14, during a period of turbulence and change in Crewdson’s life. “I went through a difficult divorce and moved from New York to a church in Massachusetts,” he says. “There was an attempt to relocate and stabilise, and as I was doing that, I started taking these daily hikes up the Appalachian Trail and doing long distance swimming in lakes and reconnected with nature in a certain way…. Through that process I started putting together the next body of work, which was Cathedral of the Pines. So it came out of a dark place but also a place of reconnection.”

I’m not interested in nature with a capital ‘N’. I’m interested in using [it] to describe something psychological

The series captures atmospheric, often anxious scenes that take place within the majestic backdrop of the forest, sometimes within cabins, with light pouring through doors and windows, and other times in the wilderness itself.

The Motel, 2014

The forest setting will be familiar to followers of Crewdson’s work, as he has regularly returned to this area of the US to make photographs. In part this is down to a personal link for Crewdson – “my parents had a log cabin in the woods there,” he says, “so I have strong connections to my childhood there” – but also because of the artistic and psychological associations triggered by nature scenes.

“I think all artists have their domain, their place of work,” he continues. “I’m not particularly interested in nature with a capital ‘N’. I’m interested in using these settings to describe something psychological. That being said, in this body of work, definitely nature is central. I think that’s partly because of the process: of walking on the Appalachian Trail and doing these long swims in lakes, it was all an attempt to reconnect to myself, so we can move forward. I think that maybe unconsciously became the theme of this body of work.”

“Everything starts with location with me,” he says. “It’s a process of just either driving around or looking in homes or whatever it is. Every image is sparked by a place first and foremost, and then through that an image will come to mind and it builds from there.”

Everything starts with location…every image is sparked by a place.

He then works to develop what he calls a written “description” of the image with his creative partner, Juliane Haim. “It’s a limited story,” he says of this text. “It’s very restricted to description, there’s no attempt at motivation or plot or back story, and the reason for this is I want all that to remain a mystery. All my pictures are very evocative, they’re not direct, so I want it to be open-ended. I want them to remain a mystery in some way.”

The Haircut, 2014

Crewdson explains that the images develop and change shape over the course of making them, so that the idea in the description may be left behind. “Once we make the picture it bears a kind of relationship to the original description, but of course it’s very different too.”

Casting is also central to Crewdson’s images. In the past, he has worked with models and actors, though for Cathedral of the Pines, they were in part friends and family, including Haim, who appears in a number of the images. “In that way, certainly the pictures are the most intimate I’ve ever done,” he says.

Behind-the-scenes images from Cathedral of the Pines.

However, this is not to say that there is any naturalistic intimacy shown. “I’d usually have more of a distance,” he continues. “More of an objectivity to the whole thing. There’s still that coolness in the work – obviously, they’re not by any standards the most intimate pictures. They’re purposely both detached and intimate at the same time. In the end they are objects in a formal way … they sit in a frame and they’re lit. To me it’s a formal problem in the end. There’s always that kind of remove.”

He goes on: “I think all my bodies of pictures are channels to my psyche in one way or another. They’re not conventionally autobiographical, they don’t detail actual things in my life, but they’re all shaped by my own fears and desires and anxieties and need to try and make a connection, all those things. I think that’s the difference between being an art photographer and an editorial or commercial photographer. An art photographer first and foremost is telling a particular individual’s story that is only possible through that particular lens, that view of the world.”

Photography is now largely taken seriously within the art world, though there are those who are still sniffy about the medium. This is not something that bothers Crewdson. “I think photography will always be seen as a kind of secondary art form,” he says, “but I’m fine with that because to me, one of the reasons I’ve always loved photography is because it’s so democratic. Pictures exist in the world and everyone, from any culture, of any age, understands how to read pictures. And that being the case, you can make something very, very strong out of something that everyone understands. So I like the accessibility of pictures. I think people know how to read a photograph more readily than a painting or sculpture, that it’s not privatised or hermetic or privileged in some way. To me that’s a strength of photographs.”

It’s good to have a combination of excitement and terror. That means there’s something at stake.

Crewdson is Director of Graduate Studies in Photography at Yale University, and among his students there, he sees how the accessible nature of photography is changing the type of work that is produced. “I don’t know if there’s a fascination but there’s a given connection to the internet,” he says. “I think every young artist or every photographer has to be aware how pictures are first and foremost conduits on a screen. Even the idea of making photographs that hang on the wall as objects is a little archaic. So there’s an understanding of that, and an understanding of how the internet works.”

Father and Son, 2013

Crewdson’s own practice evolved naturally. “Early on the pictures were much more improvisational and less structured,” he says. “There was a hotchpotch group of people and we did it in a very organic way. And these things just build, you almost don’t realise it as it’s building and then one day you look around and it’s a much larger thing.”

After decades of having his work compared to cinema, Crewdson and Haim are now embarking on making a movie, an adaptation of the 2014 Carla Buckley novel The Deepest Secret, to be titled Reflective Light. The film is to be produced by La La Land’s Marc Platt, and is due to begin casting shortly with the hope it will be shot next year.

With the cinematic quality of his photographs, it might seem like the transition to film would come more easily to Crewdson than most, yet he admits there are challenges to overcome. “I think like a photographer,” he explains. “I think in still images, and I’m never particularly interested in what happens before or after, I’m just interested in the frame and what the frame contains. That’s a very photographic idea. That’s going to be the challenge, moving forward making the movie – how to bring that to a cinematic form but still think like a photographer, still think in terms of the power of singular images.

“I think it’s good to challenge yourself,” he says. “It’s good to have a combination of excitement and terror. That means there’s something at stake.”

‘Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines’ is at The Photographers’ Gallery in London from June 23 – October 8

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