Gregory Crewdson's Photo Alchemy Artist and photographer Gregory Crewdson doesn't so much take photos as make them. Alex Chadwick talks with Crewdson about how he uses techniques of film to stage pictures -- and, some critics say, transform the medium of photography.
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Gregory Crewdson's Photo Alchemy

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Gregory Crewdson's Photo Alchemy

Gregory Crewdson's Photo Alchemy

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Chadwick, back with another installment of Photo Op. That's our occasional feature on people and stories in photography. So if you're near a computer, you can go to our Web site,, right now and get pictures to go with your radio.

BRAND: And the pictures in this case are by Gregory Crewdson, the photographer some experts say has remade the whole form of photography and art. Gregory Crewdson doesn't so much take pictures as make pictures.

And, Alex, he uses a crew--Right?--I understand 70 or 80 people sometimes?

CHADWICK: Lighting people, set designers. This is a man in his early 40s. He's been teaching at Yale for years and working on a series of photographs that he stages, and you can tell they're staged looking at them because they occur in ordinary-looking places, often rural Massachusetts towns like Pittsfield or Lee, but there's always something else, some disturbing element. So you look at these images and you wonder, `Where does this come from?'

Gregory Crewdson, how do these images come to you?

Mr. GREGORY CREWDSON (Photographer): Often when I'm swimming, an image emerges in my mind. And if that image lingers, then I will attempt to represent it in some way. And I have essentially two forms of production. One is we work on a sound stage, and when we do that, working with a very large team of an art department and a whole production crew, or we work on location in towns and small communities.

CHADWICK: Let's take an example of the first one. Let's talk about this picture. You have an image of a woman who is floating on her back. She's wearing a white dress. She's floating in a flooded living room, what looks like the living room of a small house. There's furniture there; there's a staircase leading upstairs. I mean, it looks like an ordinary place, except it's flooded and she is looking at the camera, although not directly at it, with some kind of vacant expression on her face.

Mr. CREWDSON: Yeah. Well, that was an image that captivated me for years, and I can't quite say why. But at some point, I sort of moved forward with that image and we built a living room in a sound stage with a tank around it and submerged the living room with water. And I casted what I thought would be the perfect subject for that picture...

CHADWICK: The woman.

Mr. CREWDSON: ...the woman, and I needed from her a sense of--there had to be a kind of haunted quality in her.

And what I'm very, very interested in is a moment that hovers between before and after, a moment that is unresolved, that remains a question, and necessarily I think the ultimate meaning needs to remain a mystery for myself or else it wouldn't be as interesting. I could tell you that there's continuing motifs of opened car doors and mounds and moths and butterflies in my work. I could try to make sense of it, but I sort of prefer to let the photographs speak for themselves in that way.

CHADWICK: And maybe let the viewer supply those answers.

Mr. CREWDSON: Yeah. I think one of the reasons I'm drawn to photography in general is that it's narrative capacity is very different from other literary or narrative forms. It's one isolated frozen moment, and I've always been drawn to that limitation in a certain sense.

CHADWICK: You talk about the moment between before and after. The pictures that you make, these single still images, are practically half a movie in themselves because there's a story that's going on there.

Mr. CREWDSON: Right. But it's a very particular kind of story, actually, because despite the enormous production, there is very little that's actually happening in my photographs. Usually, the narrative is very, very small, a woman sitting in the passenger seat of a car in the middle of a main street of a town and the driver's side door is open. So what makes the picture powerful, hopefully, or mysterious is that that tiny moment is transformed by the sense of light and color.

CHADWICK: By a sense of light and color, but also because you have directed the woman who is sitting there. Is that the actress?

Mr. CREWDSON: Jennifer Jason Leigh is in that photograph.

CHADWICK: You have directed her to have a particular expression on her face. Something has happened, and she is hardly reacting to it at all which in itself is a reaction, isn't it?

Mr. CREWDSON: Yeah. And I like in that picture how small she is and the largeness of the empty town. Yet she has a very powerful presence.

CHADWICK: You've been working in this area for quite a long time, so people know you in and around these towns in Massachusetts. Still, it surprises me the amount of cooperation you're able to get. You do things--like, you went to the town--this town was at Pittsfield--and you said, `I want to set a house on fire.'

Mr. CREWDSON: Right.

CHADWICK: And the response was, `OK, fine. Here's 15 properties that we have and take your pick.'

Mr. CREWDSON: Right. Because I've been working in this one area for so long,

I think that you slowly again build a sense of trust and cooperation. And we did have this interesting meeting last year where we sat down with the various town officials and I proposed two photographs. One was the photograph I just spoke about and then I also said, `I'd like to make a photograph of a burning house.' And the fire chief, Chief Duffy, was sitting at the table and I immediately sensed his excitement. And...

CHADWICK: And you don't mean because he was about to arrest an arsonist. He actually was...

Mr. CREWDSON: So the very next day, we were presented with 20 properties, and finally I picked a house that was interesting to me because of its ordinary nature, but also because of its placement in the landscape. Ultimately, we decided not to burn the house down completely and we made that picture about a year ago. I just drove by that house, and it's sitting exactly like we left it with the burn marks and everything.

CHADWICK: How often do you go swimming?

Mr. CREWDSON: I try to go swimming at least four or five times a week. And when I'm in New York, I swim at a pool, but what I really love doing is swimming in lakes. And there's very little time to allow yourself to just sink into your own imagination. And for me, swimming allows me to do that, just to get lost and try to get in touch with my unconscious thoughts.

CHADWICK: Gregory Crewdson, thank you for speaking with us on DAY TO DAY.

Mr. CREWDSON: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

CHADWICK: And again, you can see some of Gregory Crewdson's photos at our Web site,

And NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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