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NPR Arts & Life

'Brief Encounters' With Real Life From A Scene-Setting Photographer

"Untitled (Birth)" from Gregory Crewdson's <em>Beneath The Roses </em>series.
"Untitled (Birth)" from Gregory Crewdson's <em>Beneath The Roses </em>series.

A woman sits on a bed in a dim, wallpapered room. There's an old rotary phone on a nightstand, a prescription pill bottle by the foot of a lamp. Her long wavy hair is brushed back, and the moonlight peers in from between the curtains, illuminating the flowery pattern of her nightgown and the small tattoo on her fleshy arm. Curled sleeping on the bed is a baby, and the woman's head is turned towards the child. But the expression on her face is unclear. Perhaps it's a look of resentment and exhaustion, of alienation and despair. Hers is a story, unknowable, full of endless possibility, waiting to be told.

Such is the power of the photographs of Gregory Crewdson, who stages haunting and elaborate images of small-town America. Crewdson creates worlds with the cinematic scale and obsessive attention to detail of a filmmaker. He employs location scouts, set dressers, soundstages and fog machines, sometimes working for weeks or even months to capture one perfect moment on camera. Director Ben Shapiro brings to light this painstaking creative process in Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, a new documentary filmed over nearly a decade with unprecedented access to Crewdson's large-scale shoots.

Focusing on the production of Beneath the Roses, a photo series shot between 2002 and 2008 in ghost towns of western Massachusetts, the film presents Crewdson as remarkably transparent about his work and personal life. We see hordes of set dressers wiping tracks from snow and coating furniture with dust. We watch as Crewdson directs subjects with a perfectionist's specificity — pull up that nightgown a bit, turn your head slightly this way, look sad. We also learn of Crewdson's psychoanalyst father, who took his son to a Diane Arbus exhibit as a child, instilling in Crewdson an early interest in the photographic fusion of surrealism and documentary (as well as a voyeuristic curiosity about what might be going on behind the walls of his father's home office — a fascination that perhaps manifests itself in Crewdson's depiction of private, intimate moments).

The big paradox of Crewdson's work is the seeming conflict between his micromanagerial style and his creative vision. Because for all of his planning and control and direction, Crewdson's photographs remain largely ambiguous. Photographs are always bound to a moment in time, of course, but the scenes captured by Crewdson's camera are so detailed — and so mysterious — that they necessarily invite conjecture about the story beyond the frame. And despite their meticulous fabrication, these images whisper of secrets and an ache for human connection that rings true to life. Yes, these scenes are eerily still and perfectly twilit, but Crewdson's worlds reflect our own. Here, we have imperfection — but also beauty.

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters ends its run tonight at New York's Film Forum. Other screenings will follow.

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