Gregory Crewdson captures the dark side of rural America

London CNN  — 

A profound and eerie silence pervades the work of American photographer Gregory Crewdson. Nobody talks, nobody ever seems to laugh or smile. There’s beauty but also sadness. Alone or in pairs, everyone is lost in their own thoughts or asleep.

Crewdson carefully constructs his tableaux and then bathes them in soft, suffusing twilight, real and artificial. Then he takes the photograph. Something has happened or is about to happen; we don’t know quite what.

Crewdson believes that it’s not enough to make a beautiful image. Something else has to be going on, “an undercurrent of something psychological or dangerous or desirous or fearful.”

I met Crewdson in an upstairs office at London’s Photographers’ Gallery. For the first time, the entire gallery has been given over to the work of a single artist.

The focal point of the exhibition is his latest cycle of photographs, “Cathedral of the Pines,” shot in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. His family once had a log cabin there when he was a child. These days, it’s where he cross-country skis and long distance swims. For these photographs, he drove around for days looking for locations just like a movie scout.

“Location, location, location is doubly important in photography,” he said.

‘Open-ended and ambiguous’

Crewdson has always used small town America in his photographs, but here he’s shifted into more remote, more isolated countryside. He’s always been attracted by the ordinary, the anonymous and the timeless, preferring that we can’t quite place or date his images.

"Father and Son" (2013) by Gregory Crewdson

Crewdson has famously used cinematic lighting since his “Twilight” series (1998-2002). He employs a regular lighting cameraman and dozens of film technicians, as well as props and movie-making tools like rain and fog machines – anything to enhance a desired atmosphere. He doesn’t do storyboards, but writes a one-page description of each photograph. Titles are kept simple: “Seated Woman on Bed,” “Woman in Parked Car,” “Pregnant Woman on Porch.”

In “Father and Son,” a middle-aged man is laid out on his back on a bed, naked except for a blanket over his lower half. Arms at his side, he looks fixedly up at the ceiling. Is he alive or a corpse? It’s hard to tell. Reflected in a mirror on a chest of drawers, a young boy in a T-shirt is sitting, half in shadow. He seems to be keeping a bedside vigil, but is he looking after his father or mourning him? It’s a classically enigmatic Crewdson image, another condensed story “both open-ended and ambiguous.”

The son of a New York psychoanalyst, Crewdson is an affable, thoughtful and open interview. He’s told some of the stories before, but the detail is still startling. He was raised in Brooklyn, New York and struggled at school. Dyslexic and left-handed, he held a pen “like a lobster.”

"The Barn" (2013) by Gregory Crewdson

His father conducted therapy sessions in the basement of their house and lying on the floorboards, the young Gregory tried to listen in. He’d only ever heard whispers and mumbles, but the experience clearly marked him.

“A sense of secrets and something forbidding is what my work is about,” he said.

As a boy, Crewdson wanted to becom