Cathedral of the Pines | The Photographers’ Gallery
‘Cathedral of the Pines’ marks the first UK solo exhibition of acclaimed American photographer, Gregory Crewdson. It is also the first time The Photographers’ Gallery has devoted all three of its gallery paces to a single artist. The exhibition features thirty-one digitally pigmented photographic prints that have been shot and staged in Becket, Massachusetts, a remote town surrounded by woodland. Created over a period of two years, this 2013 series explores the human condition within a natural environment.
Crewdson’s artistic process involves months of preparation from casting, location hunting and storyboarding to lighting, wardrobe, makeup and special effects. In contrast to his earlier, larger works such as those in the series ‘Beneath the Roses’ (2008), these portraits are perhaps more revealing in their evocation of the individual. Displayed at eye-level, the viewer enters the intensely intimate spaces and instead of actors, the sitters are people Crewdson knows — a friend, a family member or a resident of Beckett. Nature towers above the subjects and although often paired, there are no real signs of communication or interaction; instead, each person is viewed in isolation and all appear to be marooned in their own thoughts.
There is an apparent overlap with Crewdson’s photography and the medium of painting. Many photographs attain a painterly quality, including Woman at Sink in which a woman pauses from her domestic chores, lost in thought. Similarly, Seated Woman on a Bed, depicts a woman consumed with her own quiet contemplation. These works exemplify the power of a still image as their facial expressions communicate a number of intense emotions. One can compare Crewdson’s images to Vermeer’s revolutionary seventeenth century interior scenes including A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (1659), the open window representing a woman’s longing to extend her domestic sphere beyond the constraints of her home.
One of the central themes in the series is the Uncanny, the Freudian theory of something being both familiar and strange at the same time. Shot at twilight, the works possess an ethereal quality as well as an eerie quietude. Crewdson situates his disconsolate subjects in familiar settings, yet their cryptic actions — standing still in the snow, or nude on a riverbank — hint at invisible challenges and render a visual suspense attune with the work of Edward Hopper. In Mother and Daughter (2014), for example, a mother and daughter watch the television in a typical domestic scene; however, the mother’s breast is exposed and snow falls in through the open door. As a viewer, there is an element of voyeurism as we are confronted with a body seized up by her own mortality. In Pickup Truck, Crewdson presents a nude couple in the flatbed of a truck in a dense forest — the woman seated, the man turned away in repose. In this case, the body is used as a certain way of projecting a kind of fragility. Many questions are left unanswered; instead the viewer is forced to to find their own conclusion.
A master of the atmosphere, Crewdson’s cinematic photographs are charged with emotions and a narrative that underlines the tension between human connection and isolation. Gregory Crewdson’s ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ is on view now in The Photographers Gallery until October 8th.