No Music for you: Gregory Crewdson makes for a spooky American Smalltown

I think one of the first Crewdson photos I saw was and still is my favourite of his. It pictures a boy under a what I think is a railway bridge. It’s late at night but there is an unusual lighting in the whole picture that you will only find in horror or mystery movies. It reminds a little of the scene in E.T. where Elliot is standing in front of the garden hut shortly before he discovers the alien.

The inspirations are obvious, a lot of cinema a la Hitchcock, American artists like Hopper and one of his first experiences with photography was with Diane Arbus. Crewdson’s pictures are more like movie scenes, the set-up alone resembles more a movie set than a short photoshoot. He does a lot of retouching afterwards which only ads to the sense of fantasy in his images that always look a little detached from reality, like a moment in normal life where reality suddenly shudders to reveal something else.

I also love the settings. I am slightly obsessed with American smalltowns in narrative which I can probably blame Stephen King for who was my favourite writer as a kid. But many of my favourite movies and especially books (“The Night Country” by Stewart O’Nan, “The Icestorm” by Rick Moody”) and Charles Burns’ exceptional Graphic Novel “Black Hole” have these settings of normal suburban life that at some point derails into something else. I guess it’s a certain sense of claustrophobia because those smalltowns always seem like their own islands in the midst of America and the theme of feeling trapped whenever these islands show something unsettling. Remember the scene in “Pleasantville” where no bus ever leaves the town? There is also a scene in “Ghost World” where Enid meets this odd man who waits for a bus that has been redirected for years.

Smalltowns seem beautiful and welcoming, like a haven from the dangers of big cities and change but at the same time they live within very set frames, roles and cliches even. That’s actually the main topic of Dan Mangan‘s “Row of Houses” in which he references Stephen King’s “The Body” aka “Stand by me”. The way that all the kids are so caught in what society thinks they have to represent. The funny fat kid, the smart one, the loony and the broken one. In the end – and this is actually the beauty of this novella and the great movie adaption – they all prove that these are just roles but that it’s very difficult to break out of them.

So…where was I? Oh yes, Crewdson. It’s amazing how he can put all this in one shot. The beauty of photography or still art in general is of course that it’s one scene and that the audience has to fill in the before and after. However, at least for me there are many photographs that don’t deliver with the possibilities the picture itself has to offer. A lacking narration can put me off immediately, no matter how artsy the photo. But then again, I am a sucker for a good story especially one that challenges me and stays with me.

(It’s funny how the image before you click the play button actually looks like a Crewdson photo itself)

PS: I am awfully sorry for all the references. I only throw them in to appear totally smart and all.

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