The poet Adrienne Rich once wrote, “When I think of a landscape I am thinking of a time.” In the case of Gregory Crewdson, time – and landscape, for that matter – is the same as a shutter click. Yet the moment can last for decades. A few weeks ago, I attended the opening for Gregory Crewdson’s latest body of work, Sanctuary, at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. All forty-one of the black-and-white photos were shot on location in Rome at the Cinecittà studios. Crewdson had been traveling around Europe when he went on a tour of the legendary studios. Looking at the Cinecittà in all of its decaying beauty, Crewdson knew he had to shoot his next body of work there. “It was one of those few times you have an aha moment,” the photographer told me. Each photograph in the show captures a different, empty scene, often framed by a doorway or vault – many look like they were taken in the aftermath of the scenes from his most famous series, Twilight and Beneath the Roses, brilliantly engaging with the same flattened spacetime effect. They feel almost like the first moment you have to yourself after receiving news of a loved one passing; you can almost hear the reverberation of your own footsteps on the empty cobblestone street. Gazing at these photographs, I could sense the absence of person as subject, and I found myself overwhelmed by nostalgia. One summer ten years ago, when I was a student at an arts camp in Massachusetts, Crewdson chose me as a subject for one his famous photographs.
Photographer Taryn Simon at the Gagosian opening for Sanctuary
It had been my sixth year at Belvoir Terrace, a small arts camp for girls in Lenox, Massachusetts. In photography class, Shira Weinert, a Yale photo student at the time, taught us how to develop our own film, print our own images, and even shoot with an 8×10 view camera. One day, she announced that we would be having a visitor. Her professor from Yale would be coming up to scout a girl for one of his photos.
A few days later, the camp’s director got on the microphone after dinner and announced the arrival of Gregory Crewdson. We were told that Mr. Crewdson would be giving a lecture about his work. What we didn’t know, however, was that Mr. Crewdson would be casting his photo while giving this lecture. The next day, we gathered at the camp’s outdoor stage to hear Gregory Crewdson talk. I arrived a few seconds late, saying hello to some of the other campers on my way in. Once settled, I looked at the stage. I nearly jumped. Directly in my line of vision was Gregory Crewdson. It almost looked like he was looking back at me. I told myself not to be silly; I was after all too far away for anyone to see me from the stage.
Later that night the director of the camp approached me with the news: I had been cast as the “main” girl. I would be standing, they told me, over a deep pool of blood while 50 other campers would scatter about the background. I was excited, but I was also slightly mortified at the thought of such a loud bond with my own menstruation being captured on film.
Crewdson tells me now that the reason he chose me for the photograph was because he had been seeking “a certain kind of presence but also a slight sense of vulnerability,” someone “slightly haunted.” And that, he explained, “had to be conveyed from about 150 miles away.”
After a few days of faxed-in parental consent forms and model releases, the cast of Crewdson’s photo hopped on a bus and headed for Lee, Massachusetts. When we arrived, Gregory was already there, setting up. A small, white, suburban house sat at the end of a thin driveway, around which two school buses were parked at a perpendicular angle. There were many people, wires everywhere, and a massive lift. It took me a while to find the camera.
Director Wes Anderson at the Gagosian opening for Sanctuary
“Up there,” one crewmember said, pointing to a lift high in the air—basically at the upmost part of a nearby tree. The crewman led me to a small pool of red gunk by the driveway. “Stand here,” another guy said. “Oh, and let’s toss your backpack to the side.” He poured some more red gunk on my fingers and walked away. “How’s it going?” I looked up to respond to the question and found myself staring at Mr. Crewdson. “This is about transformation,” he said, and instructed me to hold my right arm out, tilt my head slightly to the right, stare at my fingertips, and “watch the blood drip.” “OK,” I said. “And hold very still.” He walked over to the other girls. “Can anyone draw hopscotch?” A voice squeaked, “I can.”
That was the extent of our interaction with Crewdson. He spent the remainder of the time up in the lift. I watched everyone move into place. The girls scattered. Some were instructed to stay by the school bus while others were asked to sit on the ground and play games or draw with the chalk. Then, a voice—perhaps from a loudspeaker—commanded from above: “Ready, and ACTION.” I realized just in time that this meant we were about to be photographed. I drew in a breath and held very still. And it was within this moment that I first understood my role as a “model.” This photograph wasn’t about me. Rather, I was a hologram of Crewdson’s brain. And it was my job to portray his vision. “OK thank you!” That’s how we became Plate 37 in Gregory Crewdson’s book Twilight. We all received a print of the image.
Later, I learned just how much work went into Plate 37, and into all of his photographs. “I divide my life into three stages,” says Crewdson. “Pre-production, Production, and Post-Production.” Crewdson describes the pre-production process as “a kind of idealism,” in which he scouts out the location and subject or subject matter. For the production process, Crewdson starts by positioning the camera and framing the image. The image itself is shot by a crewmember.
Before Sanctuary, when he used an 8×10 view camera, the crew would shoot a few dozen sheets of film, each one with a different focal length, to be put together later. (This is perhaps why Crewdson calls the digital camera “quite liberating.”) Then, in post-production, Crewdson’s least favorite stage, the negatives were sifted through, narrowed down, then layered on top of each other to create one image (along with some photoshop intervention).
Aesthetically, it’s easy to separate the photographs in Sanctuary from Crewdson’s earlier work. For one, his methods have changed—Sanctuary marks the first time he’s worked strictly in digital. He didn’t use human subjects for the series; he worked only with empty back lots; he did not shoot in color, but in black and white; he worked in Rome, not Massachusetts; he did not create a soundstage with lighting, instead relying only on ambient light. And even though he used his usual production team to shoot these photographs (Crewdson has over the years become notorious for employing a team large enough for a Hollywood feature film), the crew feels less present here than in his previous work.
Writer James Frey at the Gagosian opening for Sanctuary
“One of the things artists have to do from time to time is challenge their own parameters and really try to push their work in the new directions,” said Crewdson. “But of course, the more you try to get away from yourself the more you realize it’s impossible.” This kind of paradox is present in his work: Themes of solitude often accompany Mr. Crewdson’s photographs, and the framing techniques in Sanctuary—doorways and windows—are also present in Beneath the Roses. But this consistency isn’t bad; if anything it gives Mr. Crewdson a sort of brand, which he manages to keep fresh.
Back at the Gagosian Gallery for the Sanctuary opening, the night progresses as the crowd swells. Elaborate hats whirl by, pink Chanel suits, and then, of course, Mr. Crewdson in his slick grey suit (he credits Mr. Ned). At one point, director Wes Anderson appears in a shiny blue blazer. Author James Fry arrives in one piece – and a lacoste shirt. Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn the “gallerist, art advisor, independent curator, collector, and tastemaker” (coined by Bravo TV) looks just as elegant in person as she does on her new TV show, Work of Art.
Larry Gagosian was not at the opening, nor was he anywhere on the grounds. He was, according to his guards, on a plane (they must have meant a spaceship; you’d have to be flying in circles to be stuck on a plane for three days straight). The collectors came at the end of the evening mostly in pairs. One woman traveled all the way from Houston to be at the show. “I’m here for theater and art,” she said. Reactions to the specifics of Mr. Crewdson’s new work came mostly from the non-buyers, however. “I thought the show was beautiful, subtle, and complex,” said Kate Peterson, an emerging photographer. “I’m happy to see people are responding especially when you’re known for something specific,” said Mr. Crewdson. “It’s terrifying to change.”
Perhaps, Mr. Crewdson, this too, is about transformation.
Sanctuary will be exhibited at Gagosian Gallery in New York through October 30th, 2010, and then again in Rome, in January 2011.