Gregory Crewdson’s “Brief Encounters”: In Search of a Photographer’s Few Perfect Moments

He can’t remember a day waking up and not feeling absolutely sick to his stomach. His own pain of existence is reflected in the great pains he takes to create fantastical worlds that are seamlessly real. He creates the perfect blurring of reality and fiction, using the actual world and actual people to try to draw something out of this world and yet completely real. Welcome to Gregory Crewdson‘s search for the perfect moment.

Gregory Crewdson and a Sinar 8×10 camera.
Now there’s an engaging portrait movie about the fascinating artist Crewdson: Brief Encounters, directed by Ben Shapiro, is about acclaimed photographer Gregory Crewdson’s 10-year quest to create a series of haunting, surreal and stunningly elaborate portraits of small-town American life — filmed with unprecedented access as Crewdson makes perfect renderings of a disturbing, imperfect world with meticulously composed images.

Crewdson himself is not particularly comfortable with holding a camera. He never holds the cameras — his team shoots mostly with a Hasselblad Sinar 8×10. Yet, this is the way he makes pictures, as the only way he knows how to make a picture.

Like shooting a film, he uses a lot of production, a lot of lighting and set design in terms of how to choreograph the light in a way no other photographer does. It’s about “finding meaning through light”, says Crewdson.

Brief Encounters has no specific backstory and no before-and-after to Crewdson’s images. It’s about the search for perfect visual moments. Crewdson epic production of movie-like images, however, doesn’t just happen. His monstrous cameras don’t just “take” images, Crewdson creates them through elaborate days and weeks of invention, design and setup.

Crewdson’s process has elements of public spectacle — he and his crew of 60 assistants have been known to take over an entire street to set up a shot. But there’s also the element of private meditation. “Part of his work is solitary — there is a lot of driving around and thinking,” says Brief Encounters’ director Shapiro.

Each and every frame reminds of a painting. “Making a feature is 24 frames a second”, says Shapiro. “Making a Gregory Crewdson photograph is one frame a second.”

Key to Crewdson’s high-impact photographic work is his highly visual and at the same time psychological process. The pictures are always a projection of his psychological fears, anxieties and desires, with each and every image carefully constructed. Boy can it be time-consuming. At a five-week shoot in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he and his crew waited days and days for a few inches of snow.

Crewdson sees himself as a storyteller by means of photographs frozen and mute in time. His images always remain a question. He’s interested in telling a story that always remains an open question and never gets fully resolved. His images, he says, are about “a moment before and after.” Crewdson is not interested in resolving the question of what happened or what’s about to happen. He’s interested in tensions and the unexpected.

He’s after the “moment in-between moments that almost doesn’t exist.”

In search of perfect moments, with maybe a shot a week, how does one get by?

Well some of Crewdson’s image will end up selling for $80,000 to $100,000 per print. In editions of 10. So essentially it’s a million dollar shoot every time he decides to compose an image.