Gregory Crewdson grew up, the son of a psychoanalyst, in Brooklyn, N.Y. But he has made a name for himself in the art world and beyond for his haunting photographs of uncanny twilight scenes in and around the old industrial towns of Western Massachusetts.
“Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters,” a documentary directed, filmed, and produced by Ben Shapiro, chronicles the artist’s career, focusing on an extended body of work called “Beneath the Roses,” made between 2003 and 2005. These large-scale photographs were shot either on specially designed sets or on location in towns such as Lee and Pittsfield.
“Greg Crewdson?” says one local interviewed for the film. “He’s like a household name here. Shuts down streets and does wacky stuff.”
Before one of his elaborately staged shoots, which we see Crewdson micromanaging, one of his models, drawn from the local population, admits to being nervous. “I’m not photogenic at all,” she says. “But it’s interesting!”
Elsewhere, after days of preparation leading up to one studio shot, we feel the tension before Crewdson can click the camera: For four hours a newborn baby refuses to go to sleep in the assigned position.
Touches like this, and insightful interviews with Russell Banks and Rick Moody, novelists who are friends of Crewdson, make the documentary well worth watching — even if exposing so much of the mechanics behind the pictures robs them of some of their mystery.
Crewdson’s lonely figures, empty streets, and quietly dissonant details channel Edward Hopper, David Lynch, and (via Lynch) Norman Rockwell (who set many of his famous illustrations in the same Western Massachusetts towns). We learn from Crewdson, who had brief success in a rock band called the Speedies in the 1980s, that his interest in photography crystallized when his father took him to a Diane Arbus retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
He took up photography after developing a crush on a female photographer. Later, influenced by Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and photography teacher Laurie Simmons, he worked with colorful dioramas that contained dissonant details, such as decaying body parts. Lynch’s films — not only his interest in suburbia’s underbelly but his open-ended narratives — drew Crewdson toward a new photographic language that hovers between straight documentary and contrived theater.
Other affinities are easily identified: the cinema-inspired tableaux of Cindy Sherman; the artificial style of railroad photographer O. Winston Link; the haunted vision of the Australian photographer of nighttime suburbia, Bill Henson.
But Crewdson’s work is distinctive, and this film does a great job helping us understand the specific nature of his vision. An even-tempered, jovial man, he drives and wanders around the same streets, the same dilapidated areas, year after year, trying to find the perfect locations. (Interestingly, he doesn’t take a camera with him on his scouting missions: “It’s about getting a sense of the place,” he explains.)
“My pictures are about the search for a moment — the perfect moment in a way. For that instant, my life makes sense,” he says.
We are not taken too far into that life and its preoccupations. But we learn of Crewdson’s interest in secret lives, dating to the days when he would listen through the floorboards to his father’s patients in the basement office of their home.
Moody says that writers tend to be drawn to Crewdson’s images because they are so pregnant with narrative possibilities. But Crewdson, even though he admits that “Beneath the Roses” was originally planned as a film, says he has no interest in what happens before or after any given photographic moment, and claims it is a “privilege” not to have to think about it.
“Brief Encounters” is a smart, well-constructed documentary that will enthrall Crewdson fans. It may enthrall non-fans, at least those who come to it uninitiated, even more.Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Sebastiansmee.