Gregory Crewdson's father was a psychoanalyst. As a child, when he should have been in bed, Crewdson would creep through his parents' grand Brooklyn brownstone, hovering on the landing above his father’s study. There he would eavesdrop on his father’s sessions with his clients, overhearing snatches of conversations about a grown-up's most intimate fears and insecurities.
It’s a good way of understanding Crewdson, now 53 and a grown artist who sells his photographs for $140,000 a go. And it might in particular help us understand his most recent series, Cathedral of the Pines, on show now at London’s Photographers’ Gallery – the only time the gallery has dedicated its entire space to one artist.
Throughout his career, women have been a focus for Crewdson. “They’ve always tended to be the protagonists in my pictures. I can’t tell you exactly why,” he says when we meet at the gallery. “I tend to respond to them more, so the males tend to be more passive, reclining, like backdrops. I can identify more with women.”
But Crewdson is willing to go further. Many of the women in this series aren’t what you might term classically beautiful – at least, not in the way American movies and adverts typically understand it. The women here are older, more careworn; weight and gravity have had their way. “I respond to women who are slightly older and give off this sense of regret, who are haunted in some way,” he says. “That’s my type. There’s something beautiful in women like that. They just seem so overwhelmingly adventurous.”
Crewdson has always been a very 'New York' photographer, yet his work is often talked of as a slanted look at the darker edges of American urban life. He’s mentioned David Lynch’s 1986 neo-noir Blue Velvet, as well as the fiction writer Raymond Carver, as influences. In doing so, he seems happy to locate his female protagonists in that very American heritage of revealing the disturbing things that happen in our most private lives, when the curtains are drawn, beyond the white picket fence and perfectly tended lawn.
Here, Crewdson’s women are saying something else. And that change seems to have been inspired by changes in his own life.
When he was small, his father would take Crewdson out of Brooklyn to spend time in a cabin on the outskirts of Becket, a small rural town in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, surrounded by great mountainous pine forests.
One summer in 1996, when he was undergoing “a tough time”, Crewdson spent an entire summer there. In the evening, he would get out his camera and photograph the fireflies as they danced in the fading light. It was a means without an end, a therapeutic way of getting lost in the repetition of the shots.
“I thought about how I had always returned to Becket when I needed refuge,” he says. So he left Brooklyn to travel upstate and into the forests. Once there, he found, through a friend of a friend, a converted church and a ramshackle building beside it – what turned out to be the town’s old fire station. He rented the church, and started to use the fire station as his studio.
He began a ritual. He would wake up in the morning and hike up to a lake, before spending an hour swimming there alone. A few weeks in, he had a sense of “feeling a darkness lifting from me.” He decided not just to spend time in Becket when he needed a period of self-preservation, but to relocate his life there – “physically, but psychologically too”.
One day, while out walking, he came across a small trail in the woods. The trail was named Cathedral of the Pines. “As soon as I saw it, I stopped in my tracks and just stared at the name. I knew it was going to be the title of my new series.”
Something else happened during that time as well. For the past five years, Crewdson has worked closely with Juliane Hiam, at first on casting (together they've attracted professional performers like William H. Macy and Julianne Moore to appear in his photographs) but more recently as a more holistic, creative collaborator. He doesn’t specify when, but at some point the relationship became more than professional.
“The work reflected my experiences of coming out of a very tormented relationship, and starting to work very closely with, and then date, Juliane, and finding myself suddenly capable of reconnecting to who I am as an artist, and to my own sexuality as well,” he says.
Something else is at play here. Before, Crewdson would always cast actors to appear in his photographs. In this series, he used people he knew – including Juliane, her daughter Harper, and his own daughter Lily. In one photograph, the two children cut each other's hair. In others, Juliane is often caught in makeshift homes, the wilderness pressing in. She’s always in the nude, or in states of undress.
“There’s a distinction between a nude woman and a naked woman,” Crewdson says. “Nakedness is what I’m going for. I’m interested in exploring desire, yes, but I’m also interested in mortality. There isn’t a lot of eroticism in the pictures. I use the body as a way of showing a certain kind of fragility. I wanted their flesh to show vulnerability, a nakedness in these great expansive settings.”
His models are often caught in the outdoors, or situated in or near rugged, temporary little abodes – shacks or trailers or huts. “I realised I was including a lot of makeshift places of rest, shelters that suggested some possibility of home, even inadequately,” Crewdson says. “I wasn’t very conscious of it, but the inclusion of those things was reflective of where I was. I was searching for a new sense of home, and a new sense of place.”
Looking at the pictures that surround us, I suggest to Crewdson that his work might in some way be trying to make sense of someone else’s mind. My mother carried me round in her belly for nine months, I say, and I’m close to her, but oftentimes I don’t have a clue what she might say from one moment to the next. When I spend time with my girlfriend or my sister, they’re at once incredibly familiar, and complete mysteries to me as well.
“Yes,” he exclaims. “Yes! It’s that sensation of feeling connected to and completely foreign from a person, in the same moment. I still feel that toward my mother, and in some ways my daughter – that sense of them being there, right in front of you, but yet not being of this world. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully understand that. I don’t know whether I even want to.”
Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines is on show at The Photographers' Gallery until 8th October 2017