Sense of Time
With Gregory Crewdson–a darker Norman Rockwell–in Cathedral of the Pines
The Pickup Truck (detail), 2014, Digital Pigment Print, Image size 37 1/2 x 50 inches (95.3 x 127 cm), Framed size 45 1/16 x 57 9/16 inches (114.5 x 146.2 cm), Edition of 3, plus 2 APs ©Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
Photo by Gregory Crewdson
Going to Becket is like coming home for Gregory Crewdson. It’s where his father bought a vacation home back in the 1960s, and his creative producer-turned-girlfriend Juliane Hiam grew up there. So when the world-renowned photographer was in the midst of a painful divorce in 2011, he found solace in his daily swims in Becket’s Upper Goose Pond during the summer months and skiing the town’s wooded trails come winter.
What Crewdson left behind was his life in Brooklyn and the New York City art world that had long celebrated his work. An artist whose prints sell for up to $125,000 and are among the collections at MoMA, the Met, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Crewdson found himself in the unfamiliar position of being depleted and creatively blocked for two years. Then one day he was cross-country skiing in the forest and spotted a small wooden sign that read “Cathedral of the Pines.”
“For whatever reason, it was a revelation,” says Crewdson, whose calm, somewhat reserved demeanor grows animated when discussing his work. “I saw in that moment in the middle of the woods the entire body of work: the title, the locations in Becket, the small size of the crew.”
Thus began a three-year project of Cathedral of the Pines, shot in Becket with Berkshire-based casts and crews of 20—half the size of a normal Crewdson production. The scenes were approached like films, with storyboards and casting sessions.
Locations were scouted, and director Crewdson brought in his long-time team, including director of photography Richard Sands from Pittsfield and camera operator Daniel Karp from Housatonic. (Crewmembers paid homage to the project with a single pine tattooed on their body, viewable on Crewdson Studio’s social-media feeds.)
Cathedral of the Pines illustrates an obsessive attention with even the placement of a sponge carefully considered. Psychological themes of isolation and connection that play on our fears and desires are highlighted by the use of light, color and theatricality, evoking Crewdson’s greatest influences—Edward Hopper, Diane Arbus, and Walker Evans, along with filmmakers David Lynch and David Cronenberg.
The resulting 31 digital prints are on exhibit at New York’s Gagosian Gallery through March 5. The reception to his first show in five years is enthusiastic. It will then travel to galleries around the world alongside a newly released, fully illustrated book of the series published by Aperture and featuring an essay by art historian Alexander Nemerov.
In his three-decade career, Crewdson has shot all of his work here, with only one exception. He finds inspiration in the Berkshire people and place, joking that he is “like a darker Norman Rockwell.”
There were a number of images in a former series taken on heavily trafficked streets in Pittsfield, which required an enormous collaboration with business owners. For Cathedral of the Pines, Becket’s volunteer fire department cut a hole in a frozen lake, tested the ice for safety, and remained on standby. The firemen even posed in photos, standing still for 90 minutes on a frozen lake. “They did not move and did not care about the cold,” says Hiam, who wears many hats on a Crewdson shoot and posed in several of the images herself. “Whatever Gregory wanted, they made it happen.”
Some photos were shot at Hiam’s childhood home, which Crewdson loved for its ordinary and timeless quality in the middle of the woods. Her parents, huge Crewdson fans, vacated it for the production and in their absence, crews transformed their home. “We joked it was like a combination of Risky Business and The Cat in the Hat,” says Crewdson. When Hiam’s parents returned six weeks later, everything was back in place.
Crewdson plans to direct his first feature with a screenplay he and Hiam will adapt from Carla Buckley’s novel, The
Deepest Secret. “Given the nature of how Gregory makes pictures and the fact that they’re so cinematic, he has been approached many times over the years,” says Hiam. “We love working together, and given that I’m a writer—this project came our way and we took an interest in developing it.”
Cathedral of the Pines is less overtly spectacular than Crewdson’s prior work, but the result is greater intimacy and access to the subjects. “I doeverything I can to make the most beautiful, mysterious picture using all of the resources I have,” says Crewdson. “When it all goes right, it’s that beautiful moment when life does make sense.” His children—Lily age 11 and Walker age 8—were on set for the first time and Lily is in “The Haircut.” (pictured left)
As a child, Crewdson (pictured left) suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia and struggled in school. In his 20s, he took a photography course on a whim because of a girl he liked. Thecourse, taught by Laurie Simmons (mother of actress Lena Dunham), changed his life.
Crewdson took to the static nature of photography, relishing the chance to tell a complete story in one frozen image with no beginning or end. “Photography is something I was able to read and understand in a way that I couldn’t with other forms,” says Crewdson, who serves as director of graduate photography at Yale and is on the board of MASS MoCA.
His life has come full circle. Not only does he create his work in the Berkshires, he lives here full-time. A non-practicing Jew, Crewdson rented the 1890 Methodist Church in North Egremont, sensing it would offer him the stability he needed during his divorce.
A couple of years later, he bought it. “Churches evoke feelings of transcendence and connection,” he says of his understated home with its cathedral ceilings.
He renovated the firehouse out back to use as his studio. Five years after moving to the Berkshires in the depth of despair, Crewdson is a happy man. “There’s a life here I love, the swims, the walks, it’s all super-connected.”
Note: High-profile locals made up some of the cast in Gregory Crewdson’s most recent body of work, Cathedral of the Pines, including book author Jennifer Trainer Thompson, left in Woman at the Sink. Juliane Hiam, Crewdson’s creative producer/girlfriend, appears at the very top and in other images in the series. Also photographed are actress/director Hilary Somers Deely, actress Elizabeth Aspenlieder, painter Cynthia Wick, and Shakespeare & Company director of development Natalie Johnsonius Neubert. All images were taken in Becket.
Photo Credit details:
The Shed, 2013, Digital Pigment Print, Image size 37 1/2 x 50 inches (95.3 x 127 cm), Framed size 45 1/16 x 57 9/16 inches (114.5 x 146.2 cm), Edition of 3, plus 2 APs ©Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
Father and Son, 2013, Digital Pigment Print, Image size 37 1/2 x 50 inches (95.3 x 127 cm), Framed size 45 1/16 x 57 9/16 inches (114.5 x 146.2 cm), Edition of 3, plus 2 APs ©Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
The Haircut (detail), 2014 Digital pigment print, Image size: 37 1/2 x 50 inches
(95.3 x 127 cm), Framed size: 45 1/16 x 57 9/16 inches (114.5 x 146.2 cm) , Edition of 3, plus 2 APs, Gagosian
Gallery ©Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
Photo of Gregory Crewdson by Jake Borden
Woman at Sink (detail), 2014, Digital
Pigment Print, Image size 37 1/2 x 50 inches (95.3 x 127 cm), Framed size 45 1/16 x 57 9/16 inches (114.5 x 146.2 cm), Edition
of 3, plus 2 APs, ©Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.