Two-thirds of the way through Cathedral of the Pines, I’m convinced I’m being catfished: Crewdson’s work is almost too good to believe, or too real to be believable.
The Photographers’ Gallery has given three floors to Gregory Crewdson’s cinematic photo narratives, Cathedral of the Pines and, like the title, the series is both stripped back and imposing all at once.
The broad subject is one of distance and disconnect – remote woodland, remote towns, remote relationships; of lives lived in quiet desperation. Or, as the gallery has it:
“the dystopian landscape of the anxious American imagination, […] atmospheric scenes, many featuring local residents, and for the first time in Crewdson’s work, friends and family”
If this hints at small-mindedness or even claustrophobia, it’s anything but. Each photo stands alone, contained yet epic in scale; visually similar to both modern film making and the light-and-shadow and people-and-drama of Vermeer and Rembrandt and Caravaggio. This kind of familiarity – of thinking we know what to expect and understand – turns out to be misleading.
Several images feature solitary individuals seemingly alone despite the presence of another person. One woman seems to wash her hands in a bloodied sink while snow piles up around the house. A young girl sits at a work bench in front of a dead bird; beside her the floor boards have been wrenched up.
There’s an immense detail to these quiet, downcast and sometimes disturbing scenes; the same repeated motifs and props: pill bottles, glasses of water, nature, old dial telephones. They are entirely staged but believable; they give a feeling of having wandered into a movie (or someone else’s life) just after the crucial scene, and yet are strewn with clues with which to construct your own version of events.
The exhibition’s opening remarks take me by surprise. This is an endeavour which clearly comes of collective effort: Crewdson works with a large collective and even larger equipment set-up. Perhaps it’s not surprising that for photos to look so much like movie stills requires a film crew.
Later there’s a behind-the-scenes slide show, a bank of low-grade images which capture the ‘actors’ at rest, or the crew at play (many of whom sport tattoos of the exhibition logo) – and this is the point where I’m struck with a thought: what if the exhibition is a ruse, a kind of immersive theatre, but the real images are these grainy snap shots? Once I think it, it sticks.
Crewdson’s work looks so tangible, but it’s as much narrative as anything else. He describes seeing the scenes in his head, and then recreates it: they’re not real. Each photo is a framed window through which we glimpse a single moment, and within each frame are other frames: art work, images, more windows. It’s the recursiveness which is dizzying – it becomes hyper real. Where the story stops is in the staging; in seeing the narratives being constructed with massive lighting rigs and cranes and pulleys; in realising women captured on film with down-cast gazes and half-naked can also wear jeans and smile a lot.
It is in a word brilliant; the kind of art which surely makes your heart skip a beat while your mind struggles to make sense of the illusion. It makes the viewer a conspirator in the story. It’s hyper-real and unreal to watch; and fixed and fluid to read: it does so much, so well, and all at the same time that it’s quite overwhelming – and yet unmissable.