GREAT BARRINGTON — Every artist must endure certain vicissitudes: They come with the job description. But few artists cycle to such an extreme degree as photographer Gregory Crewdson, profiled in Ben Shapiro’s immersive new documentary “Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters,” which opens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Friday.
To create his eerie, hyper-realist, yet ultimately enigmatic scenes of down-market malaise, Crewdson begins his creative process in a receptive, solitary phase — his “favorite part” of the process. He’ll swim for miles in a Berkshires lake, waiting for an image to surface, or cruise the back roads that tourists rarely see, in search of a seemingly ordinary setting that conveys just the right mix of “regret or something haunted or something just outside of grasp — some sense of loss.”
Inspiration, once it comes, is fairly straightforward. “You just let your mind run, and then an image starts to build,” he says. “Once it’s in there, it’s pretty much locked in.”
We’re seated at a massive refectory table, the centerpiece of his preternaturally neat and spare new home near Great Barrington, a cored-out 19th-century Methodist church which he bought last year, in the wake of a painful divorce. He’s on his own here, but for the weekend visits of his two young children and occasional conferences with his extensive creative team.
Crewdson’s elaborately staged “frozen moments” — he also describes them as “moments between moments” — typically require the participation of crews on a near-DeMilleian scale. Pride of place on the team goes to his long-time director of photography, Richard Sands, who is the one who actually clicks the image — on a “big, huge, cumbersome” 8 x 10 camera — and does so about 40 times in all, so that in post-production, Crewdson can bring out the foreground, middle ground, background. The resulting composite has “an undeniable beauty,” he says, “but it also creates a kind of claustrophobia; it creates a prison around those figures — traps them a little bit.”
Even in the midst of this frantic activity, surrounded by scores of helpers, he’s in a world of his own. “All photographers are drawn to the medium by a sense of isolation, of being alone,” he contends. “The very act of holding a camera to your eye” — which he rarely does now — “is an act of separating yourself from the world. It might sound like a weird paradox, but I feel like the whole process, from beginning to end, is sort of a lonely endeavor.”
Right up until it’s time to frame, Crewdson is busy maintaining “a direct relationship” with the imagined scene he has worked so hard to render. He’s extremely hands-on — adjusting the fold on a nightgown, determining the perfect dingy bedside lamp, positioning a defeated set of the shoulders . . . Like a sculptor? “Or a doctor, giving an exam!” he laughs.
Shapiro first filmed Crewdson for a segment on PBS’s “Egg: The Arts Show” series in 2000 and, fascinated, felt drawn back over the ensuing decade. “I found him so interesting — sweet, super-friendly, and very supportive,” Shapiro enthuses over the phone. “He connects right into people. He’s also very focused — both are useful.”
Crewdson gave Shapiro carte blanche right from the start of what turned out to be a 10-year project. “When he started shooting,” Crewdson confesses, “I never thought there would be a movie at the end. And I think that was really helpful.”
He admits to cringing upon viewing the rough cut. “I couldn’t even begin to describe how discombobulated I was. It’s really hard to watch yourself!” — especially when recognizing, in hindsight, that in the final phases of filming he was going through the “least happy” phase of his life so far, as his marriage imploded. “Fortunately the movie is framed by before and after. It doesn’t mention any of the stuff about the divorce. But anyone who has known me and who has seen the movie can see it. It’s there.”
He takes a deep breath. “Now I have a very different reaction to the film: I really do love it. There’s parts up there that are hard to look at, but generally I’m really thankful for the movie because it documents this period of work”: his “Beneath the Roses” series (2002-08) comprising 32 shots, some captured on location, others painstakingly constructed on a MASS MoCA sound stage. “MASS MoCA and I have this long-standing relationship — I think partially because we came of age together.”
Crewdson, who just turned 50 and is now on MASS MoCA’s board, started shooting in the area — where his family had a cabin — as a Yale graduate student in the mid-’80s. His approach has evolved over the decades, but he traces his central preoccupations — “a sense of dislocation or fear or desire” — to his childhood in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where his father maintained a psychotherapy practice in the basement of their brownstone.
A sense of secrets — revealed, withheld — may have pervaded the household, but “I also had an idea that my father was doing something” — he pauses — “good. Helping people.
“I think in a certain way I took after my father,” he muses. “I just sort of reinvented that in aesthetic terms.”
Crewdson does his best not to become too familiar with his enactors before a shoot. As in a therapeutic setting, “It’s important to have the distance,” he says, “but also the emotional connection. My pictures are very much about the surface of things, and what’s occurring beneath the surface.”
“Just get lost in the mood,” he tells a slightly weathered-looking woman in a scene captured in “Brief Encounters.” She’s crouched on the curb outside a could-be-anywhere bar. He tells her how to sit, not what to think. Click! — actually several dozen clicks, in order to layer an image that will capture, in almost oppressive detail, the feel of an aimless summer evening — and the mood is set, forever.