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Suburbia, Mystified

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If ever a gallery artist were ripe for defection to Hollywood, New York photographer Gregory Crewdson is the one. Crewdson, 39, creates large-scale color tableaux of ordinary people in not-quite-right domestic settings. To realize his vision, he brings an entire film crew to his suburban “sets” and spends months in the throes of “post production.”

Though not unique in creating staged pictures (Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons and Sharon Lockhart, among others, work in a related vein), Crewdson takes his process to the limits of still photography, employing a vast technical team that at times has included multiple production managers, a director of photography, an aerial engineer, several camera operators, a production designer, a lighting supervisor, three gaffers, eight grips and electricians, two pyrotechnics specialists, two casting consultants, a carpenter and, of course, a few documentary photographers to record the process.

People speak of Crewdson’s work as film stills, but distilled films might be more apt, since the movies they elusively refer to don’t exist.

Despite all the behind-the-scene effort, the hallmark of the work is an eerie calm. “Twilight,” a Crewdson exhibition that opens today at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, contains 20 48-by-60-inch richly colored and finely detailed C-prints that are as still as a walk through a post-apocalyptic landscape.

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In these photographs, the latest in a series that Crewdson has been working on since 1998, houses glow from unseen causes, school buses lie toppled and ordinary frontyards bristle with tension from the presence of hastily abandoned vehicles.

In all of the work, an air of mystery and menace hovers, and the subtext is a driving story line that, if only the viewer could grasp it, would surely explain everything.

“My job as a photographer is to take all this production and make it real,” Crewdson, an amiably disheveled fellow, says over lunch a few days before the first of three openings of “Twilight,” in May at the Luhring Augustine Gallery in Manhattan. (The show moves on to London’s White Cube Gallery after its Los Angeles engagement.)

“Ninety-nine percent of my time is spent in production meetings with designers, scanners, people who work with computers.

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“All to have an aesthetic experience at the end. I barely call myself a photographer anymore. I say I’m an imagist. I’m interested in creating a beautiful image. Beauty and mystery. It’s very basic art stuff.”

The pictures, done in editions of 10, plus two artist’s proofs and one print for Crewdson himself, sell for $15,000 each. Luhring Augustine co-produced all of the current work, picking up half the tab, which, the artist says, ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In one taunting narrative in the series, kids in a group stare at an enormous mountain of flowers piled high in the middle of their neighborhood street. (“It’s my version of a memorial,” Crewdson says.)

In another, moths glint in a shaft of light that pierces a darkening road and illuminates an ungroomed patch of land. (“In all the pictures,” he says, “light is a narrative code, revealing or illuminating or transforming.”)

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In the jarring picture that serves as the cover of a new book based on “Twilight,” a woman, supine, floats in water in her living room, a lamp and other furnishings reflecting in the liquid surface. Her fixed stare is impenetrable.

The photo was inspired by “The Death of Ophelia” by the 19th century British artist John Everett Millet, a painting Crewdson considers beautiful.

Is she alive or dead?

“I don’t know,” he says.

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Crewdson has been pushing photography’s boundaries for more than a decade, to considerable acclaim. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney and LACMA are among the museums that own his work, along with such private collectors as agent Michael Ovitz, director Jan de Bont (“Twister”) and “Frasier” writer-producer Chuck Ranberg.

Crewdson’s name was even bandied about on a recent episode of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” (“Personally, I think everything he does, Gregory Crewdson did better, except years ago,” an art student tells teenage Claire Fisher, in a reference to another character, Billy Chenowith.)

An essay in the “Twilight” book by novelist Rick Moody tracks Crewdson’s transformation from high school rhythm guitarist in Brooklyn to “demonic artificer” photographer by way of a 1962 show of Diane Arbus’ photos at the Museum of Modern Art that his father, a psychoanalyst, took him to. (“It is weirdly personal,” Crewdson says of the essay. “I can barely bear to read it.”)

Crewdson started taking large color photos at Yale as a graduate art student in the late 1980s (he currently teaches there full time). Later, he focused on photographing miniature dioramas, each of which would take him a month to build.

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Working in series related by themes and style, he next created the lurid “Natural Wonder” (1992-97), which depicted color-saturated nature scenes violated by bloody body parts. These were elaborately staged but on a smaller scale than what was to follow.

Next came “hover” (1996-97), 10 black-and-white pictures “filmed” on location in Lee, Mass., a town in the Berkshires where his parents had a home and where much of “Twilight” was also shot. For “hover,” his first work with a production crew, he used an 8-by-10-inch camera and shot from a crane, so the perspective is markedly voyeuristic and somewhat otherworldly.

The move from studio work to collaborating with others evolved from a personal vision. “I knew I wanted to make photos from that elevated point of view,” he explains. “Once up there, I had to figure out what to do. I wanted to photograph people in ordinary routines where things have gone strange or wrong. I wanted to show a woman planting rows of flowers in the street. I couldn’t do that by myself. There was something naturally cinematic about the idea.”

And so he began assembling a rudimentary crew that included a tree surgeon, landscapers and the local fire department. The “hover” pictures, like “Natural Wonder,” explore ideas about domesticity and nature and laid the foundations for the “Twilight” both in theme and in intricacy.

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But this series used natural lighting, which simplified the shooting process and didn’t require permits or major intrusions into town life. “We never officially closed any streets down,” Crewdson says.

The large-scale production and color work of “Twilight” were not just an artistic imperative; they were made possible by a fortuitous meeting in 1998 with noted special effects creator Douglas Trumbull (“2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), whose company at the time, Entertainment Design Workshop in western Massachusetts, was a magnet for Hollywood pros.

Through Trumbull, Crewdson met Rick Sands, a lighting wizard whose credits include “A.I.,” “Independence Day” and “Menace II Society.” Sands became Crewdson’s director of photography, an indispensable part of the artist’s creative team.

Reached in Massachusetts, Sands says the difference between working on a full-scale Hollywood production and a Crewdson shoot is negligible. “There’s no sound, I guess,” he says. “Gregory directs every piece of frame. It’s very busy as a shoot, as busy as a motion picture. The way it’s structured is like a motion picture. Everything just unfolds.”

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Even with the full-scale setups and professional lighting enhancements, each picture also got a post-production digital scan that brought together multiple frames in order to elicit optimal effects from color, contrast and lighting.

“It’s all about creating your own world,” Crewdson says. “Mine just happens to be suburbia. It’s a setting to project my own psychological drama onto. It’s a flexible place to establish a narrative. It feels familiar and ordinary, but I like to defamiliarize it.”

If Crewdson actually makes the leap into filmmaking, as he says he wants to do when the right project comes along, he will aim to follow in the footsteps of the directors he most admires--Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg. “They have very subjective and contiguous stories to tell. They are obsessed with a central core of themes, motifs, images, et cetera,” he says. “I relate to this very much.”

Yes, he says, stillness would be important. But narrative would be also, along with framing and space and focus. Not for him the abstractions of fellow artist Matthew Barney, whose three-hour movie “Cremaster 3,” he had just seen in New York.

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“It was amazing. He had a million-dollar budget and an opening at the Ziegfield. But it’s a very elliptical, with no narrative sense.”

That’s not his style. He says he’d make a film “with a real story.”

And yet Crewdson’s art derives from his proclivity to keep the meaning just of reach. The viewer senses a before and an after, but in fact there is in the “Twilight” series nothing but the irresolute present. The artificial worlds in “Twilight,” may seem provocatively real, even in their improbabilities, but they are not.

“Artists have a single story to tell,” he says. “The struggle is to attempt to reinvent the story in different forms, and make it new each time.”

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Whatever it means.

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“Twilight” by Gregory Crewdson at Gagosian Gallery through Aug. 3. 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 271-9400.


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