Extraordinary Phenomena

A bright white beam spotlights a lone figure standing at the edge of a quiet residential driveway. It’s a still night and the parked cars and cosy lighting from indoors gives the rest of the scene a soothing feel, in the spirit of works by photographers John Barbiaux and Elsa Bleda. There’s nothing unusual about the setting at a glance, with its dozing cars, cleanly clipped lawns and swooping overhead wires cutting diagonals into the top of the composition. In stark contrast with the mundane, light enters from an unknown point and collects in a circular puddle at the subject’s feet – it’s an oddity that makes this shot so entrancing. It’s impossible to determine the person’s response to this phenomenon. Are they amazed? Afraid? Confused? It’s as though we’ve caught the exact moment that an extraordinary story is about to unfold.

Gregory Crewdson’s (b. 1962) iconic piece, Untitled (beer garden) (1988), is on display as part of Albertina’s major retrospective devoted to the lens-based artist’s impressive 30-year career. Starting with his Early Work (1986–1988), the exhibition moves to his famous Twilight (1998–2002) series to the mysterious scenes from Beneath the Roses (2003‒ 2008), which explores people’s isolation and alienation from the environment. Visitors will also enjoy the most recently completed Eveningside (2021–2022), portraying an unheroic fictional town of the same name in atmospheric black and white. Following Cathedral of the Pines (2013–2014) and An Eclipse of Moths (2018–2019), Eveningside represents the last part of a trilogy that looks into the social decline of society – one far removed from the promises of the American dream.

Expertly crafted, otherworldly scenes are Crewdson’s speciality. The lensman created Untitled (beer garden) (1988) as part of the Twilight series, which is an ongoing collection of large-scale and meticulously staged tableaux. In another frame, Untitled (woman in flowers) (1998), the main character sits in a garden of pink, purple and yellow flowers as her mundane kitchen makes for a now out-of-place background. Elsewhere, Untitled (sleep walker) (1999) shows us another figure out alone at night. This time we glimpse the lonely nighttime wanderer from inside through a curtained window. Crewdson has specifically chosen the witching hour for its air of mystery, its electric potential for transform the mundane into something magical. The photographer brings these scenes into reality like a filmmaker, directing large production crews and members of small suburban communities. The key difference is the perfect stillness.

Crewdson is amongst other creatives bringing elements of film to photography, such as Julie Blackmon’s (b. 1966) elaborate productions and Polina Washington (b. 1991) atmospheric portraits shot with a cinematographer’s eye. We might wish for the frozen characters inhabiting these beautiful frames to move and expand the stories hinted through the lighting, props and setting. Why not make a film? Crewdson expands on his devotion to the still in an interview with Taylor Dafoe: “The question for me, always, is how much of a story do you want to tell and how much do you not want to tell? In the end, I always feel it’s better to tell less than more. Unlike other narrative forms, no matter what you do, your story is going to be incomplete; it’s always going to be a question mark, it’s never going to fulfil itself, unlike a movie.” 

Each frame is filled with possibilities. That’s the beauty of a single photograph. Here, Crewdson grants us the freedom to project our own desires, experiences and stories onto his work. In this way, we become part of the piece and that is perhaps what makes them so compelling. The longer we spend thinking about his pieces and exploring the tiny details, the stronger our connection with the world becomes. In essence, these are establishing shots that invite the viewer to continue the narrative however they choose.

Albertina, Gregory Crewdon: Retrospective | From 29 May


Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, From the series: Twilight, 1998-2002 Digital pigment print The ALBERTINA Museum, Vienna – Permanent loan, Private Collection © Gregory Crewdson.
  2. Gregory Crewdson, Starkfield Lane, From the series: An Eclipse of Moths, 2018-2019 Digital pigment print The ALBERTINA Museum, Vienna – Permanent loan, Private Collection © Gregory Crewdson.
  3. Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, From the series: Early Work, 1986-1988 Digital pigment print The ALBERTINA Museum, Vienna – Permanent loan, Private Collection © Gregory Crewdson.
  4. Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, From the series: Beneath the Roses, 2003-2008 Digital pigment print The ALBERTINA Museum, Vienna – Permanent loan, Private Collection © Gregory Crewdson.