The Quarry, from Cathedral of the Pines

How Gregory Crewdson captured the dark heart of America, with a little help from his friends

As he prepares for a London show, the photographer explains how he found his new muse in the forests of Massachusetts. (Published The Times, 13 June 2017)

Far out in the middle of the water, Gregory Crewdson could feel himself losing body temperature. It was a cold and rainy Fourth of July, Independence Day, and he had hiked to his customary spot at Upper Goose Pond, near his home in the forests of western Massachusetts, and set off on a solo swim across it. Part exercise, part ritual, these regular swims form part of the photographer’s creative process, enabling scenes and images to rise from his unconscious that he later incorporates into his work. The process is not without risk, but, fortunately, on this occasion he made it to a nearby trail cabin where some passing hikers stopped and gave him tea.

Mother and Daughter, from Cathedral of the Pines

“It’s weird how it can suddenly be hard to get back to shore,” says Crewdson, sitting at a wooden dining table in the cavernous converted 1890s church in North Egremont that he shares with his partner and collaborator, Juliane Hiam. Becket, where Crewdson spent his childhood summers away from New York, is 40 minutes’ drive away and has long fascinated him. He has been creating photographs “up here” since the 1980s — eerie, cinematic tableaux that expose the darkness and melancholy at the heart of small-town America. Most require months of planning, with entire streets closed down for elaborate staging and lighting and the kind of production crews typically found on movie sets — as many as 60 people for a single image. Crewdson has become one of the most collectible of contemporary photographers, his works selling for tens of thousands of dollars.

The 54-year-old is soon to be the subject of a large exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. It will be the first time the institution has devoted its entire space to one artist since its opening, in 1971. The show, a series of 31 new pieces entitled Cathedral of the Pines, is Crewdson’s first for several years and made its well-received debut last year at the Gagosian in New York — about as big a name in contemporary art as it gets.

“There are times you try to radically rework the formula, but you can’t get away from yourself.”

A drum kit sits on the mezzanine high above us. There, Crewdson sometimes rocks out with his two children when they visit, using the same Stratocaster guitar he played as a teenager in the Speedies, a punk band who had their moment in late-70s New York. A converted firehouse nearby contains Hiam’s office and the workshop, with a neatly organised set of files containing the negatives, sketches and production notes for Crewdson’s most celebrated series, Beneath the Roses, created between 2003 and 2008. “Ready for a museum one day,” he comments. Sheep and chickens wander about in the neighbour’s field, and there is a nest of baby robins in a small fir tree by the entrance steps. Hiam has been documenting the birds’ progress on the couple’s Instagram account — “Our link to the world”.

“The idea was this place would be a temporary sanctuary, literally,” Crewdson says, gesturing at the soaring ceiling. “Six years ago I went through a very difficult divorce. In an attempt to reconnect with something that felt more stable, I rented it for one summer, but as soon as I walked in I knew immediately this was going to be my home.

The Shed, from Cathedral of the Pines

“I began to associate New York with the anxiety of the divorce,” he continues. “This was the place I always returned to in times of instability.” For a few years, Crewdson found himself utterly incapable of making images. Then, one day in Becket he and Hiam were cross-country skiing and came upon a trail “miles from civilisation” called Cathedral of the Pines, where he felt his equivalent of writer’s block lift.

“It was the keystone,” he explains. “The title came first, then I knew all these pictures would take place in Becket. Out in the woods, the middle of nowhere. To somehow reconnect with nature and my childhood. Juliane and I started working, we became partners in every way . . . All those things came together in that spot.”

Beneath the Roses was striking for its immense scale and sense of spectacle. “This was a smaller group, in actual houses or in the woods, with minimal lighting; much more naturalistic,” he explains, adding that he worked with an intimate crew of “only” about 15 people. For the first time, Crewdson included his family and friends: “Juliane, her daughter, my daughter, people we know . . . but when I say intimate, it’s relative. My pictures will never be like Nan Goldin’s,” he says referring to the American photographer known for her raw, intimate portraits.

Dream House

Crewdson has at times moved away from his signature style. There was the Sanctuary series from 2010, tranquil landscapes of a movie set in Rome, and a collection of black and white images of fireflies taken at his family’s cabin in the mid-1990s, but not exhibited until 2006. Dream House, a magazine commission from 2002, was more typical, but added an element of celebrity portraiture (Gwyneth Paltrow, Tilda Swinton and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among others). “There are times you try to radically rework the formula, but you can’t get away from yourself,” he admits. “The story always remains the same. I think every artist defines themselves in their twenties.”

Given that he is dyslexic and “severely handicapped academically”, Crewdson’s discovery of photography at college in New York came as a relief. Coming of age in the 1980s, he was influenced by the documentary work of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston. “I loved that and still do,” he says, “but at the same time, the first generation of postmodern photographers was coming up — Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Laurie Simmons . . . I started to mix and match conventions of documentary photography with more fictive approaches.” Crewdson has taught at Yale for more than two decades, as the director of graduate photography. “It’s important to keep connected to the next generation because when you’re mid-career, you can close off,” he says. “It helps define your own position.”

Before college, Crewdson played in the Speedies. In the late 1970s, he and his friends would go to the CBGB club to watch bands such as the Ramones, Television and Blondie. “From day one, we were big in the New York scene,” he says. “Between us were four different high schools; we each brought our crowd.” Crewdson mentions that earlier today he was chatting with Thurston Moore, a founder of the influential noise-rock band Sonic Youth, whom he knows from his music days. “We were totally intimidated by them,” he laughs. “I wanted to be pop, accessible. I guess there’s part of that I still bring with me — that pop part.”

Beneath the Bridge, from Cathedral of the Pines

We set off on a quest to nearby Great Barrington for a cup of Crewdson’s favourite coffee. Weaving the car through streets dotted with characters that could come out of his photographs, he chats enthusiastically about music. The coffee turns out to be some kind of devilish cold-brew, hot-water hybrid that is delicious and bracingly potent; a morning visit to this aptly named Fuel coffee shop is an integral part of the summer swimming ritual.

Across the road, Crewdson points out the cinema where in 1990 David Lynch arranged a private screening of his film Wild at Heart for the esteemed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who lived nearby and was a friend of Crewdson’s parents. “We all watched. Just her and our family,” he says, wide-eyed at the memory, before going on to discuss Kael’s seminal review of Lynch’s Blue Velvet. “That film was a life-changer for me. I was already making pictures of small towns, but to see his vision of normalcy and the darkest elements of things was very powerful. I came out of that movie a different person.”

“Blue Velvet was a life-changer for me… I came out of that movie a different person.”

Lynchian visions of suburbia’s dark heart aside, the presidential result last year has caused an intense global interest in American small-town life. Crewdson has been making art in these places for decades — has it given him any special insight into what is happening? He talks about nearby Pittsfield, which lives in the shadow of the closure of General Electric. “And the malls are closing,” he trails off. “I have had a lot of comments since Trump became president. The pictures are evocative of the moment in some way, but that’s something I don’t go after at all.”

Crewdson is planning his first feature film, which would seem to be a natural progression. “The whole question of movie-making has been floating around for 20 years. We’ll see,” he says, adding that Beneath the Roses was originally conceived as a movie. “I had a meeting with the head of HBO, and he read my three-page treatment and said, ‘There’s no story here.’ ” He laughs. “I was like, ‘Actually, he’s right.’ There are some good images, though.”

Crewdson’s particular view of the world has always been one in which truth and fiction lie uneasily alongside each other, which feels striking in an era when truth itself is under threat. Fiction is bleeding into our everyday lives, and as an artist he sits at that uncanny spot between reality and the imagination. “It feels interesting that should happen,” he says. “This is a defining conversation of our times. My pictures are this weird coming together of real places with people I know, yet it bears no resemblance to actuality. But that’s the beauty of art,” he says, finishing his coffee. “In a way, art is the original fake news.”

Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London W1, June 23 to October 8 2017

Originally published in The Times, 13 June 2017