There are many stories—great and small, true and terrible—that begin with a sleepy town in New England, or a trail weaving through a dark wood. Walden and The Crucible, anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne—these are the big stories of small American towns, of romance, of tragedy, of trees and ponds, and the smell of pine needles on the forest floor. Becket, Massachusetts, then, is a town haunted by a story-in-waiting, ripe with narrative inheritance. You can close your eyes and picture it, even if you've never been.
Cathedral of the Pines
In the town of Becket, in the state of Massachusetts, live 1,779 residents. There is one YMCA, a dance festival known as Jacob’s Pillow, three houses of worship, and a path: The Cathedral of the Pines.
More than this, every photograph becomes a single instant that is simultaneously before, during and after—a visual artefact in which, as Roland Barthes once wrote of all photographs, we read as ‘This will be and this has been.’
In 2013, the photographer Gregory Crewdson—born in Brooklyn, New York, far away from forests—came to Becket to make a story. In almost every narrative you find a beginning, a middle, and an end; at least, time passes, and one event follows another. Photographers deal in narratives, but not always in sequence. Time itself is fluid and infinite, but every photograph snatches from time a moment and makes it static. More than this, every photograph becomes a single instant that is simultaneously before, during and after—a visual artefact in which, as Roland Barthes once wrote of all photographs, we read as ‘This will be and this has been.’
So, when Gregory Crewdson came to Becket, a town with a path that led to somewhere, he walked it the way a photographer would. Suddenly, the path led anywhere, nowhere, and somewhere all at once. And so was born Cathedral of the Pines, Crewdson’s latest body of work, a series of photographs that tell stories heavy with the history of context, but existent in a space where time is liminal—the narrative of each photograph crafted with intentional ambiguity.
Look: In Mother and Daughter, a girl sits on a couch, a woman’s head resting on her knees. Through the windows looms the winter white, the bare trees. Look again: the sleeve of the woman’s slip falls down her shoulder, bearing a breast; the sliding door is ajar, and snow melts onto the rug; footsteps, coming and going, cut a path through the snow. Within the arranged almost-banality of the photograph so much is unknown, the why and what and when all unclear.
This ambiguity is what Crewdson trades in, each photograph a deliberate, careful construction of a story that straddles so many possibilities. The breast, the snow, the sliding door—all these pivot points that could lead off to so many different stories are selected by Crewdson to become part of his pictures, photographs in which the minutaie are all accounted for. He operates by a mode of photography known as ‘directorial,’ wherein the photographer acts as architect and originator, constructing an image not found in the natural world. He has, for previous bodies of work including Twilight (1992-2002) and Beneath the Roses (2003-2008), implemented production on a colossal scale, shutting down entire streets of small suburban towns, or simulating storms with rain, fog, and snow machines. He has hired actors, crews, and photography directors—all to make photographs that fall exactly into place. Just so.
With this, fact and fiction intermingle—or rather, in Crewdson’s manufactured histories are the ghosts of Becket and its inhabitants, the series Cathedral of the Pines a distorted echo of the path that gave its name away.
In Becket, Crewdson stepped sideways into a town which promised its own story. So, foregoing his own tradition, he used locals, friends, and family as the players in his tableaux. With this, fact and fiction intermingle—or rather, in Crewdson’s manufactured histories are the ghosts of Becket and its inhabitants, the series Cathedral of the Pines a distorted echo of the path that gave its name away. For the world outside, this is the only version of Becket with which they have ever been acquainted. Photography is so closely intertwined with truth that Crewdson’s shrewd interventions lay lightly enough to let us forget he ever made them.
Back in the gallery, we walk from one image to another, treading a path through Crewdson’s woods. There are exclamations of discovery, as those who’ve wandered further along the exhibition’s path spot the congruities between the pictures: the same paintings on the walls of different homes, the same people populating different scenes. With these repeated motifs, which dot the way like breadcrumbs on a trail, the images extend beyond their bound moments, reaching into the pasts, presents, and futures of the stories found in the other photographs. The photographs themselves are large-scale images, printed at the resolution the details deserve, and still—those in the gallery who have come to look are pressed up close to the protective glass, just close enough to still be safe, just beyond the edge of the wood. Groups of two or three huddle, spinning stories out of the effects Crewdson has divorced from their causes, trying to understand how it has come to what they see before them, or what will happen in the next moment never to come and already unfolding.
Cathedral of the Pines is on view at the Photographers’ Gallery until October 8.
By Gabrielle Hick