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Book Review: Cathedral Of The Pines

Book Review Cathedral Of The Pines By Gregory Crewdson Reviewed by Blake Andrews What does an art star do next when he reaches the top? He moves on to greener pastures. In the case of Gregory Crewdson the "pastures" were the forests of Western Massachusetts, where Crewdson set up shop in 2012 after disembarking New York amidst the throes of what might be called a mid-life crisis.

Cathedral Of The Pines. By Gregory CrewdsonAperture, 2016.
Cathedral Of The Pines
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Cathedral Of The Pines
Photographs by Gregory Crewdson. Text by Alexander Nemerov.
Aperture, New York, USA, 2016. In English. 76 pp., 31 color illustrations, 15½x12".

What does an art star do next when he reaches the top? He moves on to greener pastures. In the case of Gregory Crewdson the "pastures" were the forests of Western Massachusetts, where Crewdson set up shop in 2012 after disembarking New York amidst the throes of what might be called a mid-life crisis. Recently divorced and between photo projects, he settled near the town of Becket — where his parents summered — and took a sabbatical from photography. Crewdson recharged with a natural therapy of long open-water swims, walks in the woods, and cross-country ski tours. One day he discovered Cathedral Of The Pines trail, where "he felt darkness lift, experienced a reconnection with his artistic process, and moved into a period of renewal and intense creative productivity."

Cathedral Of The Pines. By Gregory CrewdsonAperture, 2016.

At least that's how Aperture's press release recounts the story. The actual logistics of Crewdson's rejuvenation were slightly more complicated. They involved a team of forty assistants working for a month at a time over three intensive photomaking sessions, each of which required meticulous staging, set construction, lighting, and management. Crewdson's oeuvre is often described as cinematic, and that term applies to his process as well as the resulting images. He's an auteur with a crew.

The resulting project, Cathedral Of The Pines, is Crewdon's first new work since 2011. Thirty-one photographs exhibited at Gagosian in New York last winter, and now a book has been published by Aperture. As with previous Crewdson books, the production takes its grand cue from the artist. The monograph is lavish, sweeping, and precise, with no expense spared in the design or printing. The reproductions are rich and gorgeous. They take up most of the book before it shifts smartly to beige uncoated paper for the afterword (with an unsettling focus on savage influence) by Alexander Nemerov. The list of acknowledgements — each crew member thanked by name — takes up a full page, and has the character of scrolling film credits. I'm tempted to call Cathedral Of The Pines a coffee table book but really it's too nice for that. It's probably more suited for a display case.

Cathedral Of The Pines. By Gregory CrewdsonAperture, 2016.

Which brings me to the work itself. For me, Crewdson's photographs have always suffered from a certain display-case syndrome. His scenes lean closer to museum diorama than wildlife, appearing taxidermic and lifeless. Entropy defies design, and thus dirty laundry piles, earthen scrapes, and mussed beds lose vitality under Crewdson's butterfly pin approach. Which is all fine, because a diorama needn't be alive to teach, and Crewdson's images needn't appear real. Don't let the term "photograph" throw you off. Crewdson's images are about ideas, not documentation.

After a five-year hiatus, recharging, and resettlement, one might expect that inner imagination to evolve in a new direction. Instead, Cathedral Of The Pines marks something of a retrenchment. Old fans who relish car doors left ajar, pedestrians in night clearings, antiseptic nudity, and bewitched stares will find much to appreciate here. A typical photo shows a woman on a bed with moonlight creeping in the window. In another, a washed up Mitt Romney lookalike stares at a screen surrounded by ‘60s lounge decor. Another depicts a couple on a porch, engaged in silent reverie, shot at distance. A man with resigned expression is framed perfectly near two parked sedans, and so on.

Cathedral Of The Pines. By Gregory CrewdsonAperture, 2016.

Who knows where such images come from? Probably not even Crewdson. In any case, he isn't here to provide answers. His talent lies in summoning the unconscious and executing it visually, and he's wrangled a large crew to accomplish the task. He's a therapist couch for the photo world, spreading his inner imagination under the spotlight for us to examine.

Cathedral Of The Pines finds him engaged with the same inner demons as ever, and their display is entertaining enough. The only caveat is that Crewdson has been over this territory before in Beneath The Roses and Twilight. The main difference with Cathedral Of The Pines is a shift in locale. The new work supplants Crewdson's typically exurban sets with rural settings. Trees, streams, quarries, and frozen lakes take the former place of town centers. Wilderness relieves some of the tension in his photos. But the core message — the dreamy narrative surreality that is Crewdson's essence — remains beguiling, unapproachable, and, unfortunately, at times formulaic. His imagination may be fecund yet it's also strangely bound by past habit, past thoughts, etc. In other words, it's pretty normal.

Cathedral Of The Pines. By Gregory CrewdsonAperture, 2016.

I've compared Crewdson's approach to filmmaking — based largely on his production methods — but perhaps painting is a more suitable analogy. His images exhibit the control of 19th Century virtuoso. The lighting is exact and carefully directed, and every visual element planned and considered. By the time the shutter is released it's almost an afterthought. It's an attention to detail that most photographers are either unable or unwilling to achieve, and one that painters more commonly enjoy than photographers. I don't believe Crewdson is in love with the photographic process as some photographers are. For him the camera is merely a means to an end, the simplest method of illustrating his imagination. His photos owe a greater debt to painters — Vermeer, Eakins, and Hopper, e.g. — than to any photographer. Nevertheless, Crewdson holds a rare position among photographers. He's an art world star. He's reached the top. One wonders, what will he do next?—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at

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1 comment:

  1. Interesting article, well written. Must say I agree. Have lost interest in Crewdson's project over the years, after initial enthusiasm. John Elmslie