Every so often, a piece I write for the paper (the Financial Times) is not printed for one reason or another. From time to time I will salvage one and print it here. This was a review of a January 2011 exhibition at White Cube of Gregory Crewdson’s Sanctuary. I don’t think the show is currently visible, but the book was published by Abrams in 2010.
Des Lumières et des Ombres is the masterly 1984 treatise by Henri Alekan on the use of light in films and in paintings. Alekan knew what he was talking about – he counts among the greatest cinematographers of them all. Don’t take my word for it: look carefully at Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and you will see that Wenders named his circus the Cirque Alekan in public thanks and tribute. On page 181 of my edition of Des Lumières et des Ombres is a grid of eight views of the Forum in Rome, shot at successive times of day between 9 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon. Eight little grey windows showing the sun moving round a load of broken columns. But Alekan was the director of photography on Roman Holiday, (he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on it) and these studies are part of the detailed careful preparation he made to understand the light he was to work with.
Now that light has reappeared in a less sketchy form in Sanctuary, a series of pictures made by Gregory Crewdson among the deserted sets of Cinecittà, the famous Roman film studio complex. Crewdson has departed fairly obviously from his previous practice in these pictures: Europe not America, black and white as against his famous use of colour, shot digitally, made relatively fast, printed (at about three feet by two and half) much smaller than his habit, and made, ironically for work on a film set, with a more usual photographic retinue than the massive crews he has needed in the past. One might discern something approaching a mid-life crisis in so radical an upheaval, but I think not. I think this relatively compact series made in a month and all in the same location show a new level of mastery even from so lauded a photographer as Crewdson. I think he has achieved a density of reference in these pictures which would be overwhelming and academic were it not for the sheer beauty of the prints.
Beauty is where it should start. The views are all nominally of city scenes, although we see everywhere that the cities are the puny hardboard-on-scaffolding of the set-builders rather than stone and wood. There is no pretence about the pretence. Crewdson has rendered these architectural views in a thin register of mid-greys with only a few passages of denser dark. Oddly, for Rome, they share an essentially flat light which must have been early in the morning or late in the year. That in itself is a striking new vocabulary after the operatic quality of Crewdson’s lighting in the past, although Alekan knew all about it. From across the rooms at White Cube where they are magnificently displayed, they look very like engravings: more specifically, the glorious fantasia of Piranesi’s great Carceri. Crewdson has favoured very zigzag skylines which have much of Piranesi’s baroque or, like Piranesi, arched and sheltered views in which outdoor becomes all-but indoor. The pictures are measured and harmonious. They are obviously a coherent series and obviously beautiful.
Many photographers have worked around the illusions of film and film sets. Cindy Sherman made her reputation with her Untitled Film Stills. Larry Sultan made one of the great series on the porn industry in the San Fernando Valley. Crewdson himself has explored filmic habits in great detail. But in Sanctuary, his thinking has changed. It’s partly that he’s an American in Europe. At the very most superficial level, these are tourist views of impermanence, like Joel Sternfeld’s views some years ago of the Campagna Romana.
In Sanctuary, the evident impermanence of the sets gives way to the slower impermanence of the Eternal City. Modern apartment blocks lurk over the shoulder of cardboard temples, and non-Romans may have moments of doubt as to whether some of the Roman buildings in Cinecittà are faked for film or are real remains seen beyond the borders of the studios. I found myself reminded of the hymn where John Wesley paraphrases Psalm 90: “A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone”. Cinecittà was itself founded on imperial ambitions, those of Mussolini, only marginally different to those of the original imperial Rome. It is in the nature of cinema that the great monuments of Cinecittà – Roman Holiday among them – will remain long after the sets have rotted. So Crewdson is not merely showing the veneer-thin nature of illusion in cinema; he’s making us see that a long enough time-scale will reduce any grandeur to veneer.
The photographs of the sets sometimes look like that view – also fairly standard among photographers – of the reverse of advertising hoardings. Is Crewdson merely saying again that films deal in illusion, or is he saying that we all deal in illusion all the time and films merely point that out? A gondola is parked high and dry in a ruinous set which might once have stood for Venice. Only sidle your eyes to the right and faded false nineteenth century lettering on a wall says PIER 12. ROBERTS FREIGHT. SWIFTSURE EXPRESSLINES. It may have served for Venice once, but it also served for Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.
Crewdson points out set-built shop fronts in different languages on either side of the same street, but you can do that in any capital city in the world. It’s the twenty-first century, after all. We’re all anachronistic all the time. Then he finds two trees built into a set, to support a large archway (apparently) in nineteenth century Paris. Living trees, more reliable than scaffolding. And to make what? Atget’s Paris, or Marville’s, itself a faded memory wiped away by town planning. One splendidly cloacal street could easily be real; others could only be sets. Four oil drums lurk in a nineteenth century American street. Fantastic: Theodore Dreiser powered by 4-wheel drive !
If you visit gothic cathedrals, or National Trust houses in the UK or their equivalents elsewhere, you often find builders’ materials and their paraphernalia heaped in just the way Crewdson has found in Cinecittà. The real past is constantly remade, constantly refitted to the present, and perhaps somehow made marginally less real in the process. David Lowenthal wrote a magnificent book – The Past is a Foreign Country – to show just that process, and Robert Polidori has been photographing the remaking of Versailles for nearly thirty years to show much same thing. These are studies of the real underpinnings of illusion which call into question even some of the illusory underpinnings of our reality. It makes wonderfully rich and complex subject matter, and has been handled with a deftness that is agreeably undeclamatory, even modest.
In the middle of all this thinking about illusion and unmasking it, we should have no illusions ourselves. Crewdson found a spurious poster on the wall of one of the Roman sets: a gloriously absurd farrago of impossible Latin. I notice that in the catalogue it has been digitally scrubbed a little as compared to the exhibition print, to make the words are less legible. In the end, Crewdson is in that same business, too, of rewriting and remaking.
At the very end of the show we finally find a person. Two people, actually. A security guard lady in a glazed box at the entrance to Cinecittà admits a car (a 2.0 litre Alfa Romeo Alfetta, the most unremarkable of ordinary Roman saloons). The driver is unidentifiable, although we have his licence number: 26993F. A careful light that does not reach outside lights the security lady from within her box. It’s Edward Hopper lighting, the scrupulously deliberate lighting of Henri Alekan. We recognise her with relief, at last. She’s a Crewdson.