Unsettling landscape

Beneath the Roses

Photos by Gregory Crewdson, essay by Russell Banks

Abrams, 140 pages, $60

Norman Rockwell brought us a singular vision of small-town America, as did Edward Hopper. Now photographer Gregory Crewdson has created a new, uniquely unsettling American landscape: a highly atmospheric, cinematic world that pays homage to the past while standing on its own.

While Rockwell took the occasional, sly swipe at the status quo, raising a critical eyebrow at injustice, his depictions of a quasi-mythical Main Street, U.S.A., were by and large peaceable, safe. His paintings are a well-mannered (but hardly toothless) survey of the social, political and professional mores that governed the coffee shops and dinner tables of the American middle class.

At about the same time, Hopper's paintings were infusing the same subject matter with something slightly more sinister. Hopper, one of America's greatest realists, was more interested in the interplay of sunlight and shadow than he was in making social commentary. Even so, his art seemed to recognize the danger lurking on quiet streets, or behind closed doors. Hopper took Rockwell's cheerful coffee shop and turned it, ever so subtly, into a lonely, lustful place, the customers slumped together against the threat of darkness.

Today, half a century after Rockwell and Hopper, Crewdson presents us with another American realism. And while Crewdson works in a different medium, he tackles the same streets, houses, cars as his predecessors -- the same distinctly American iconography, revisited after decades of neglect and despair. This is Americana stripped of sentimentality: the working poor, the forgotten middle class, surrounded by failure and realizing they've been robbed of the life they were promised.

Main Street, once bustling, is hushed now, its deserted storefronts papered over and forgotten. Commerce, as we all know, doesn't live downtown anymore. And even if it did, Crewdson would evict it for the sake of an image: His photo shoots, elaborately documented in the second half of his book, "Beneath the Roses," resemble movie sets, with lights, makeup artists and meticulously arranged props. This is Crewdson's realism: fictional characters, events, disappearances, slights, all taking place on a set, carefully staged to reflect life at its most hopeless.

While the tone of his photographs is overwhelmingly bleak, Crewdson, who claims Diane Arbus and Walker Evans among his influences, occasionally betrays a wicked sense of humor: One photo shows a sedan halfway through an intersection, abandoned by its driver. The remaining passenger stares, alone but apparently unbothered, as light streams from the Independent Living Center on the corner. Crewdson is especially gifted at conveying a cold physical intimacy -- sex without love, nakedness without desire. His subjects wear consistently blank expressions; the young and old, coupled and alone, are equally removed from their surroundings, equally dulled to personal tragedies and disappointments.

The book's stark design and oversize pages create a dramatic canvas for the 175 photographs, taken during extended shoots from 2003 to 2007. Locations, scouted with the precision normally reserved for feature films, include Adams, North Adams and Pittsfield, Mass., as well as Rutland, Vt.

Like any bona fide realist, Crewdson isn't interested in showing us a fantastical, dystopian version of ourselves. Instead he focuses on the life he imagines is already happening: undocumented, behind closed doors and shaded windows. And his photographs dare us to take a good, long look.

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jreaves@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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