Cathedral of the Pines / Reviewed by Paul Carey-Kent / 06.08.17
The Photographers’ Gallery dedicates all three exhibition floors to picture window scaled prints from Gregory Crewdson’s latest series ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ (2013-14). In many ways this is business as usual for the American photographer: hypnotically detailed images benefiting from the cinematic resources which he brings to his projects – a team of 15 (location scout, storyboarder, special effects, lighting team…) who, following his extensive pre-descriptions, shoot different layers of focus throughout – foreground, ground and background – which are then combined into a single image in post-production. They feature, as before, impassive characters with private experiences which are explicitly unknowable yet implicitly momentous; and the landscape and interior settings are made to seem ominous. Crewdson says his commonest instruction to his models is ‘give me less’ – so making the body as empty a vessel as possible and maximising the range of interpretations available to the viewer. He cites his main motivation for taking photographs as searching for meaning outside of himself, and his primary theme as ‘separation and the yearning to connect’. Those concerns run through his previous major series ‘Twilight’ (1998-2001) and ‘Beneath the Roses’ (2003-08) as much as they do ‘Cathedral of the Pines’.
So what’s new? There’s Crewdson’s own psychological state (following ‘a very difficult divorce’). There’s the location of Becket, Massachusetts, where his family had a country cabin at which he spent time as a boy and returned ‘over the course of my life when I needed a refuge’. There’s the use of family and friends, rather than professional models, to people the scenarios. A much higher proportion of his subjects than previously are naked, or partially clothed, adding the intimacy of familiarity, but also implying a stripping away of pretensions and a ‘troubled Eden’. The images are printed smaller than before, consistent with a language which is often more painterly than cinematic, with the Hudson River School and Edward Hopper the most obvious reference point.
Crewdson’s work has often been categorised as ‘uncanny’, and something else which is new is the helpful distinction which Mark Fisher has made to separate that effect between ‘the eerie’ – the sense, linked to apparent absence, of a non-human and obscure external agency being present – and ‘the weird’, which is when something is present, but does not belong. Crewdson works mainly in the eerie mode. All interiors are lit from outside, so we are taken beyond the frame. Incomplete narratives, likewise, lead us to speculate on what we cannot deduce from the evidence before us. That is reinforced by how inside meets outside in various ways: in 11 of the 31 works shown at The Photographers’ Gallery, the characters are in an interior, but with views out. In six they are outside, but looking into an interior. Nine are exteriors from which we can’t see an interior directly, but there is always a manmade structure in the landscape – a car, a hut, a bridge – which we can imagine looking into or through. In only four images are the protagonists inside, and the focus all directed inwards.
The weird – the presence of what does not belong – appears rarely, and Crewdson avoids explicitly surrealistic juxtapositions. The Icehut looks a little odd to English eyes, but is a rather routine portable shed placed on a frozen lake to provide shelter during ice fishing. It’s more surprising to see The Telephone Booth where it is, not just isolated in the woods, but adjoining a tipping zone as if it might have been thrown away. And The Mattress is an unusual presence in the woods, though it could have been dumped – but the sprinkling of petals which tops it does feel both more unexpected and harder to rationalise.
Those are isolated examples. Yet the weird does get more frequent purchase in ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ – by means of the undressed figures which appear in around half of the images. Often that arises naturally, as in bedroom scenes, though they may nonetheless be highly charged, but in several the nakedness is an oddity which begs for explanation.
In Pickup Truck, for example, with its equally typical use of the vehicle to signal journeys of inner transformation, the naked women seem out of place. Have they been abandoned? Or are they waiting, and if so for what? Either way, why are they naked? The judicious introduction of the weird reinforces the uncanny atmosphere, although, the eerie predominates. The trees, their trunks echoed chromatically by the truck, stand as mute witnesses, picking up a little eeriness of their own. Another characteristic of ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ is the incidence of trees: they dominate the exterior scenes in terms of proportion of the image covered, but also appear in all the internal scenes, either through windows, or in pictures on the walls, or both.
Is the combination of effects too formulaic? I think not, for two reasons. First, some consistency is helpful, as individual photographs can then trade on the atmosphere set up by the series. That happens in Woman in Parked Car. The typically deadpan title says nothing about why she is sat there with the driver’s door open. We can see a man looking out of the window in the nearby house, so it could be simply that he forgot something and is about to return to his waiting wife. Yet we suspect matters aren’t so simple: that either he is an unconnected observer of an unexplained event, the driver having gone missing; or that he is going through a far more profound experience than merely picking up a key – perhaps he has suddenly realised the truth about his marriage. Such responses stem, I think, from the prior establishment of ‘Crewdson’s world’.
Second, individual photographs use the components in compelling ways which don’t come across as the mechanical application of a formula. Let’s look at three examples. The Disturbance is typical of the interiors facing out, but less usually cues us in through its title to the fact that something has gone on out of frame. The use of strewn clothes, cushions, picture, a glass of drink and other objects (here the lampshade) to add colour connections is a favourite device of Crewdson’s, and here their yellow and blue serves to link inside with the firefighters’ uniforms outside. That suggests that, whatever the nature of the disturbance, it will affect the woman, even though she currently appears cut off or at least calm – though could she, rather, be stunned? The reason for the title becomes clear: had it been ‘Woman at Window’, it would have provoked the question ‘Is something going on?’ The actual title foregrounds the questions: ‘Does she know what’s going on?’ and ‘If so, how does she relate to it?’
Reclining Woman on Bed is a nude placed naturally enough. Perhaps she’s woken from a sticky night in which she slept naked and cast off the bedclothes. Yet the weather looks colder than that, and the image is orchestrated through icy blues. A pink vase and a box provide two alternate colour notes, but if you mix those with the sheets’ blue, you get close to the woman’s flesh tones. There’s a proliferation of views or means out of this interior – window, mirror, reflected window, three doors… none of which seems likely to help. All of which contributes to the sense that this is more than post-slumberous horizontality, that the woman isn’t really reclining, which suggests an option chosen, so much as slumped. Her nakedness is vulnerable, not assertive. She is stripped, not comfortable.
Father and Son shows a sombre-looking boy reflected in the mirror at the side of his father, who lies in bed in a sufficiently stilled state to make us think he is ill. Three details might be used to support that hypothesis: the window, unusually for the series, is open, emphasising his inability to go out into the world; there is a missing section of plasterboard in the wall, readable as the stand-in for a surgical operation which has just taken place or is due; and the father’s head, reflected alongside his son’s, is at such an angle that his eyes, which stare blankly ahead when we see him directly, appear closed, evoking the ultimate eerie zone: death.
It’s an impressive show. All the same, it’s good to hear that Crewdson is currently working on his first feature film – both because that will be interesting in itself, and also because it will no doubt lead him in new directions when he returns to still photography.
– reviewed by Paul Carey-Kent
 Mark Fisher: The Weird and the Eerie, Repeater, 2016
Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines continues at The Photographers’ Gallery until 8 Oct 2017
The Photographers' Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW