Reporting Jonathon Sharp
Brief Encounters is a documentary on the life and work of a contemporary American photographer who constructs images – massive, immaculate, indie-movie-scale images – that balance beauty with sadness through a perspective of resounding stillness.
Gregory Crewdson, the movie’s subject, is a 50-year-old photographer born and raised in Brooklyn. But despite being a city boy, he harbors a deep affection for a small town in Massachusetts. In this typical town – with its Victorian houses, leafy streets, decaying swing sets – Crewdson has made dozens and dozens of exquisite images, incorporating the townspeople as well as their well-worn cityscape. His results are as mesmerizing as his methods.
To describe Crewdson’s work, in a few words, is difficult. Just take look at the image above, or watch the trailer below. His photos are gorgeous and, in the softest way, devastating. And he makes them as if he’s a movie director. Every detail is worked over, thought over, considered, tweaked. To establish an image that is both beautiful and emotionally ambiguous, the littlest things need to be right – more than right, perfect. To do this, Crewdson directs the actors, the light crews, the fog truck, the city authorities to such an extent that he doesn’t even snap the pictures. As a result, his work reminds you of something made in Hollywood.
The documentary on him, by filmmaker Ben Shapiro, is something of a making-of film. It focuses on the photographer’s “Beneath the Roses” period (2003-2005), but also delves into Crewdson’s childhood, inspirations, his brief stint in a band, and his creative methods. The doc’s subject is a joy to watch while he’s working, and his insights into photography are, as you’d guess, interesting. It’s just too bad the movie doesn’t have much drama in its kinetic energy. Shapiro captures Crewdson’s work process, and then shows you an image of the photographer’s finished product. Rinse, repeat. And it’s over. The encounter certainly feels brief.
While the movie is no Burden of Dreams, it does something important: it shines a warm light on an artist who is talented enough to find moments, especially in suburban American life, that ripple with beauty and uncertain emotion. In the age of Instagram, it could be argued that such images are healthy, necessary for the culture. And so we are grateful for Shapiro, and his work, in that it lets Crewdson’s talent and art outshine his own.
“Brief Encounters” is playing at Minneapolis’ St. Anthony Main Theatre.