A Perfect World

Crewdson Untitled (Leg and Mice) 1997The natural world in Gregory Crewdson’s early photographic series Natural Wonder is wondrously unnatural. The mice for example are stuffed; the leg is a cast of the artist’s own limb; the outdoor tableau is set indoors, in the photographer’s Brooklyn studio. It’s a highly detailed, meticulously planned and constructed diorama. “I’m not that interested in [nature] as subject,” the artist said, “as much as I’m interested in using the iconography of nature and the American landscape as surrogates or metaphors for psychological anxiety, fear, or desire. … [T]ropes to investigate my interior life.”[1]

The series took root in Crewdson’s imagination in 1992 in Lee, Massachusetts, where his parents had a nearby log cabin. After graduating with an MFA from Yale a few years earlier, he had been drawn back to the small town. Lee is only six and half miles away from Norman Rockwell’s Stockbridge, but for Crewdson it may as well be a million miles; his subjects are disillusioned, alienated, or largely inscrutable, a different species from the Saturday Evening Post illustrator’s apple-pied gentry. In search of what he called “single-frame movies”—not concerned with the narrative’s before and after—he roamed the terrain of precision-mowed yards, silent streets lined with workaday houses, porches dimly lit; his shoots would eventually become ever more elaborately staged, replete with klieg lights, cranes, production designers, a director of photography, a casting division, hair and make-up and a crew of upward of forty. The resulting pictures were at once lyrical and tense.

But for now, from July through October of ’92 he was obsessed with making piles of dirt in the cabin’s backyard to photograph, until the frost of New England’s fall days drove him and his dirt piles inside. He never developed those negatives but began to see “something larger,” akin to the dioramas in a natural history museum.[2] By the New Year he was back in his studio in Brooklyn, working out each painstaking detail of each model that would be constructed.

Over the five years of the project his vision became darker, its reality more bruised. He pushed aside the images of moths and butterflies, of birds and bird eggs and ordered a thousand mealworms for one tableau; he tossed in body parts, forensic photographs of murder and drowning victims and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés spurring him on. He continued to mine “the polarity between repulsion and beauty,”[3] to transcend immediate shivers of disgust. The mice and the leg look like a crime scene that landed in a Pre-Raphaelite’s brier patch.

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[1] In conversation with Bradford Morrow, “Gregory Crewdson,” Bomb, 61, Fall 1997.

[2] Gregory Crewdson, Inside the Studio: Two Decades of Talks with Artists in New York, Judith Olch Richards, ed., New York: Independents Curators International, 2004.

[3] Ibid.

Additional sources: Gregory Crewdson 1985-2005, Stephan Berg, ed., Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2007 (rev. ed.); Amy Larocca, “Loneliness and Multitudes: Gregory Crewdson’s singular approach,” New York, March 30, 2008.

(Image: Untitled (detail), 1997, C-print, 36¼ x 45¼ in., reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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