Feature Story

Gregory Crewdson $1 Million Photo Shoot

Photographer Gregory Crewdson Pittsfield MA
Photographer Gregory Crewdson Shot Setup
Gregory Crewdson Photo Shoot Pittsfield
Photographer Gregory Crewdson Assistant Cosi Theodoli-Braschi
Photographer Gregory Crewdson Shot Setup
Gregory Crewdson Photo Setup Model
Gregory Crewdson Lighting Setup
Gregory Crewdson 8x10 Large Format Camera
Gregory Crewdson Lighting Setup Pittsfield
Gregory Crewdson Shoot Watering Street
Gregory Crewdson Photo Shoot Pittsfield

Photographer Gregory Crewdson shoots his still images as if he were Michelangelo Antonioni channeling Edward Hopper on a movie set. Since he shoots with a Hasselblad Sinar 8x10 camera, his field of composition includes people, sky, cars, streets and buildings. In essence, the scale of his compositions matches the possibilities inherent in the 8x10 camera format.

Gregory has a mini lighting crew that sets up before each shoot. Richard "Rico" Sands, whose background includes being a gaffer, crane operator, and director of photography, collaborates on the lighting setup of his shots. Rico controls the lighting on the set right down to calling out which circuit breaker to kill when shooting individual shots.

Gregory composites his images from a series of shots that are slightly modified between takes. It's similar to how French photographer Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884) composited his seascapes at the beginning of the 20th Century. The photographic materials at the time made it difficult to shoot both the sky and water, so Le Gray shot them individually and composited them in the darkroom.

In Gregory's case, an electric sign like the Madison bar sign on the roof of the building in this shoot might be lit in one shot, but turned off in the next. Two giant condor cranes are rigged with spotlights that illuminate different parts of the landscape. A "skypass" shot captures the look of the sky at various moments. In one skypass shot, an overhead plane made a perfect vapor trail that vertically appeared dead center in the composition.

I watched the shoot unfold from beginning to end (6 p.m. to 9:15 p.m.) and decided to capture key moments of the process. This 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.

Gregory wrote in an article entitled "Aesthetics of Alienation" for the Tate Modern Museum that "There are these very ordinary situations, and the light is being used as a narrative code to reveal the story. It also provides some possibility of transformation of the ordinary, which gives the images a certain theatricality." This is the key insight to understand how Gregory creates images that resonate beyond the mere representation of a bar on the corner with a woman sitting outside smoking a cigarette while a car disappears down the street.

Description of the images:

The first image shows Gregory Crewdson lining up his shot in the 8x10 large format camera. The camera was positioned on a tripod midway up Madison Avenue in Pittsfield, MA, east of the intersection of Madison and Seymour Street. As the sun set, Gregory began to position the various "props" required for his shot and checked their placement within the composition by looking through the back of the camera.

The next image shows Colleen sitting on the curb outside the Madison Bar. She was hired to pose in the picture to convey a working class woman who frequents the bar. She was positioned just outside the door of the bar as if she and her boyfriend had perhaps stepped outside for a smoke (judging by the pile of cigarettes next to her). She has the worn face of a working class woman from an old industrial town like Pittsfield, MA where this shoot took place. Gregory played around with how she should be posed. He had her change the position of her arms several times until he finally settled on having her rest them on her knees with her head slightly cocked to the left looking toward the car moving up the street. To make the shot more authentic, he gathered cigarette butts from the street and piled them to her right and tossed an empty cigarette carton slightly behind her. The lighting inside the bar door was setup to cast light on her in addition to the condor spotlight and a smaller light hidden in the bushes across the street.

The next image shows a cruddy brown Chevrolet Caprice Classic car. Many of Gregory Crewdson's images include this car. It somehow conveys that worn out, tired look from a different era – the sense that time has passed by those being depicted in the frame. They can't afford to buy a new car and so they get by driving a cheaper older car. The car has no hub cabs, which adds to the drama of the image.

The next image shows Gregory Crewdson and Crewdson's assistant Cosi Theodoli-Braschi looking west down Madison Avenue as the Pittsfield Fire Department watered down the streets and buildings. One reason this location was chosen had to do with how the setting sun cast its golden light over the Madison bar and surrounding streets. The sun hit the horizon at almost a 45-degree angle to the Madison bar.

The next panorama image was stitched together from three shots that show the overall composition of the shot. Gregory's camera is positioned at more of angle, though, to make the shot slightly off kilter; the angle also creates an in-frame tension between Colleen and the Caprice Classic car making its way up Madison Avenue. This is the setup of the final image composition. Everything is basically in place except the lighting. It's the lighting that really sells this image in the way it places emphasis on objects within the composition and creates a mood.

The next image is a close-up of Colleen. The golden light on her face is why all photographers love to shoot images at dusk. It's the one time of day when the light is truly magical no matter what it falls on.

The next image shows you the lighting setup outside the three houses that are behind the Madison Bar on Seymour Street. The lighting for these houses was done in advance. In addition to being lit from the outside, the windows of these houses were lit from inside. Gregory and Rico experimented with killing the lights in different windows between takes.

The next image shows the rear view of the Hasselblad Sonar 8x10 ground glass with grid lines that was used on the shoot. Gregory owns this camera since it sees its fair share of abuse. The image seen from the rear of the camera normally appears upside down. I rotated the image so you can see the full composition of the shot. This is the million dollar composition.

The next image shows the two condor lighting cranes. The light to the right was focused on Colleen and the other one was directed toward various parts of the intersection and surrounding houses and bushes.

The next image shows the Pittsfield Fire Department hosing down Madison Avenue and Seymour Street. This went on for a good hour and half before shooting began. The water would evaporate and the firemen would have to hose it down again. The water on the surface of everything really makes the image pop.

The final image is during the actual shoot. A pickup truck has already gone down the street in the background with a fogging machine, giving the scene a moody atmosphere. A light attached to a condor crane is focused on Colleen; another condor light is creating a pool of light in the intersection and surrounding bushes. Gregory had a STOP sign removed that was next to the yellow fire hydrant. Note the pool of light in front of the first car in the background as well as the light hitting the tree across the street. The emerging mood of the shot is clearly visible in a tangible way now as the sun drops below the horizon line. The magic hour has arrived. The shoot lasted from about 8:15 p.m. to 9:15 p.m.

It was fascinating to watch the pieces of the image fall into place. Everything is choreographed from lighting to car placement to the position of Colleen sitting on the curb. It's the scale of how Gregory composes the image for the 8x10 large format camera that really makes an impression. Instead of just pointing and clicking the camera at your subject, you suddenly realize the possibilities of composing an image with artificial lighting to achieve a powerful iconic image that resonates long after the set is shut down and the negatives are developed. These images are printed on oversize paper to match the scale of the composition.

I look forward to seeing the final printed image hanging in a gallery for sale!

7 responses

  • Lynn H

    Lynn H (Deleted) gave props (22 Oct 2008):

    Cool essay!! I saw one of his photos posted on JPG as if someone here took it. I can't find it again though. It was a shot of two people at a dining table....a roast or something on the table....

  • Kristina Evans-davis

    Kristina Evans-davis gave props (9 Nov 2008):

    wow. great essay.

  • Faisal Ansari

    Faisal Ansari gave props (10 Dec 2008):

    Thanx for sharing!

  • Marco Martinez

    Marco Martinez gave props (25 Aug 2009):

    Great story. I loved reading all of it, and definitely appreciated what went into the shoot. Excellent story! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Tremaine

    Tremaine gave props (11 Oct 2009):

    Gret essay. I remember seeing on t.v. another photographer who does this kind of style photography. Except he has someone else deal with the camera (he directs and really doesn't touch anything. He doesn't like to.). He sells his work in editions of 6. And usually they are sold out before he even takes the shot!

  • Eduardo de Regules

    Eduardo de Regules gave props (10 May 2010):

    Great story, thanx!

  • Epin Hervin

    Epin Hervin gave props (18 Aug 2011):

    Theoritically, it's so inspring. But practically, it's very difficult FOR ME :)

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