He’s back in black-and-white. Gregory Crewdson’s latest endeavor, the jaw-dropping book and exhibition entitled Sanctuary. Last summer, I randomly happened to be in Rome while Crewdson was there working on this series, and he let me come by the set to see what he was up to. I was floored, not fully comprehending what I was about to see. It was my very first time in the Eternal City, and I was nursing the biggest blister in history from visits to the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. I went from seeing ruins of the real thing in the city center to a strangely-familiar set that once depicted life in ancient Rome for the HBO series of the same name. The movie studio, Cinecitta, which houses the sets, is in the outskirts of Rome,a nd has been home to directors like Fellini and Rosselini and, more recently, Wes Anderson. There is really no other way to describe how I was feeling at the moment I passed through the main gates, other than to say it was a mindf---.
The jetlag probably added to the sense of surrealism, as I passed through security and walked myself back past offices and miniature villages and halls of props. Towards the rear, over a metal fence, I saw the first hint of an ancient Roman façade in the now-warming late afternoon light. It almost knocked me off my feet. I quickly found myself being toured around a facades-and-scaffolding Ancient Rome by Crewdson’s young American intern. I dodged feral cats and wondered at the tall weeds, which appeared to be the exact same species I was fighting back at home in the States. I was drawn for a moment out of the fantasy when a Communist-era-looking apartment building could be glimpsed over a wall around one corner. It was not of the correct century, my brain told me. I thought about how lucky those presidents were to get to watch movie shoots off their otherwise cold, hard balconies. Some of the sets were in better shape than others, and some had been altered a bit for use in Gangs of New York as Little Five Points, no less. The only obvious evidence of this re-use appears in one of Crewdson’s pictures, when you can just barely read “Pier 12” stenciled on a wall.
I quietly watched the photographer at work, directing a DP, not at an 8x10 film camera, but with a digital camera on a tripod with a high-end Phase One back, another shock to my system. The light was just getting golden, and the smoke machines kicked in, not for obvious eeriness, but more for atmospheric tone. He was shooting at dawn and just before dusk for the quality of light, and also, most likely, to be working in that short timeframe when a change is happening: light is turning to dark and dark to light. There is a change of state. This is not the photographer’s first time shooting during magic hour, or the first time working with black-and-white. His prior forays into monochrome were shot with a large format 8x10 inch view camera, of backyards in Hover and of fireflies at night, both in rural Western Massachusetts. This is Crewdson’s first venture into international waters, and into another age, another empire. This is also a venture around the corner, in a way, from setting up and staging the tableau vivants that we have become familiar with in the last decade of viewing his work.
But here, he has not created the sets – they are already fabricated for another use, abandoned, yet still standing, for the most part; he only adds that bit of smoke from a smoke machine to draw out the light and the ambience. Nothing could really make more sense as a logical progression (or right turn), if you think about it, and if you think about Crewdson’s oeuvre. The layering of time and place inherent is what makes the subtext so rich. He says, “In these pictures I draw upon the inherent quietness and uncanny aspects of the empty sets. As with much of my work, I looked at the blurred lines between reality and fiction, nature and artifice, and beauty and decay.” The press release goes on to explain how the scenographic architecture is use here as the subject of the narrative, not a mere setting in which it takes place.
The prints are smaller than one would expect, and the tonal range is wide. These are not high-key, smack-you-in the-face, contrasty, dark images. The prints are very quiet, very open, almost flat, and add to the feeling that we are looking at them through some screen, whether it be physical or metaphysical. In a city full of ruins and remains and religious sanctuaries, Crewdson has found a sanctuary of another sort.
The show opens this Thursday, September 23rd, at Gagosian’s Madison Avenue location, and is on view through October 30th. The sumptuous, large book is already out, from Hajte Cantz:
To watch a video about the production, and place yourself in the faux cobblestone streets:
He will also be doing a TimesTalks event with director Noah Baumbach and writer A.O. Scott: Stories Pictures on Tuesday, October 5 at 6:30 pm