REVIEW: The psychological drama of Gregory Crewsdon’s photographic series ‘Cathedral of the Pines’

The haunting photographs of Gregory Crewsdon will leave you with a strange taste in your mouth. Slightly metallic, blood perhaps, with a lingering smell of old cigarette smoke and a damp shiver crawling across the skin. Crewsdon is unveiling ‘what exists beneath the surface’ in his carefully staged photographs set in small-town America where characters seemingly hide dark secrets. A psychological complexity is conjured in each image, leaving the viewer on a disturbing, visual cliff-hanger.

Crewsdon himself is eloquent, brooding and slightly moody. Studying at SUNY Purchase and then Yale School of Art, where he is now Director of Graduate Studies in Photography, he built his career through developing a process and style that has reached a powerful climax represented with the series Cathedral of the Pines, made between 2013 and 2014 and now on display at the Photographer’s Gallery in London.

Featuring 31 digital pigment prints, each measuring 45 × 58 inches framed, the series, unlike previous series, became an intimate personal exploration for Crewsdon. Recovering from a difficult divorce, he had moved to Becket, Massachusetts and was renting an old church to live in. Instead of the suburban scenes that he worked with in earlier works, Crewsdon became fascinated by the countryside scenery, naming the series after a trail he came across while out walking. And, for the first time, he worked with people that he knew and were close to him, instead of actors.

Why we are drawn to these scenes is unclear, yet this is something that Crewsdon investigates: the psychology of his subjects, himself and the viewer.

The works are cinematic and teeter between reality and imagination, an atmosphere that is created through Crewsdon’s photographic process, that is as intricate and consuming as the film-making process. He constructs complex sets which are carefully, artificially lit. Cathedral of the Pines involved a 100-strong crew working across the duration of the process, with Crewsdon as the director.

His work has been compared to the disquieting drama of David Lynch, who also investigates American domestic culture through his work. Yet also has numerous connections to the paintings of Edward Hopper, the photographs of Diane Arbus and Walker Evans, for the realism and documentation, yet also to Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman for the theatrical stage-set narratives.

Gregory Crewsdon, The Pickup Truck, 2014, Digital pigment print

Significantly, Crewsdon places himself within an American artistic tradition and subject matter, that somehow has a timeless appeal. He presents a nostalgia for a simple life from a voyeuristic angle where hardship, loneliness and sex become dramatic and dark. Why we are drawn to these scenes is unclear, yet this is something that Crewsdon investigates: the psychology of his subjects, himself and the viewer.

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