Do you make a picture? Or take it?
Everything is a construction, and we don't always agree on the process.
I don’t know about you, but I’m on pins and needles today. The U.S. midterms are going to be the death of me. I’ll be watching the election returns tonight (and likely for the next few days), and I needed something to take my mind off politics. Fortunately, the internet is always good for distraction. That’s what it does best, right?
Last time, I linked to Stephen Leslie’s brilliant video essay about Joel Sternfeld and Gregory Crewdson. I like both of these photographers, and I’m increasingly enamored with Stephen, so I appreciated hearing his in-depth comparison and critique of the two imagemakers. Many of you replied to my email with gratitude, so I’m glad you enjoyed the video. Here it is, in case you missed it. It’s worth rewatching:
I read Crewdson’s Trail Log newsletter (you should, too, it’s a good one), and I was delighted to see a post land in my inbox this morning, given the timing. He has an exhibition in Italy right now and published a behind-the-scenes video that digs into some of the creative decisions involved in making The Departure, the picture at the top of my post. I think it’s an absolute stunner.
Stephen had some bones to pick with Crewdson’s approach, but I’ve always been a fan of his work. I have frequently found the stories his pictures tell compelling, rich, and open to interpretation — excellent qualities for a photograph. I think The Departure might be a perfect picture. It’s all there: drama, mood, characters, and conflict in a single frame. It doesn’t leave me cold at all. On the contrary, it’s moving, even tragic. I can relate to these people and their circumstances. And it was novel to hear that the actors playing these parts are the same people from an image Crewdson made twenty years ago. That’s a lovely throughline, adding a poetic element to the pictures. I love that the stories in the Crewdson Universe carry on over time.
I like reading your comments because they frequently turn me on to another perspective which, after all, is the point. There was no shortage of reactions to Stephen’s video, and this one, in particular, stuck with me:
[I] Completely disagree with the premise of the [Stephen Leslie] video, which is like saying that fiction is worse than non-fiction in writing or that fictional films are worse than documentaries. Or that created art is worse than found art. One might think that Crewdson is shallow, but I contend that his work ranks among the top fiction creators. Brilliant. Great work elicits emotion and feeling and does so technically well. Certainly, Crewdson's work does that.
That’s a big idea because Crewdson is frequently criticized for the way he does photography. Obviously, photographs don’t need to be documents of the real world. Plenty of people do that, but I’m open to all kinds of approaches. And I think we’re past the point of believing that photography is innately true. What set my mind spinning was that this fiction/nonfiction dichotomy reminded me of another argument that occasionally finds its way onto social media — do you make a picture or take a picture? Of course, it doesn’t matter, but these words signify different philosophies about imagemaking, and it’s fun to think about them. (I’ll be eager to hear your thoughts about the Make v. Take debate. Please let me know what you think in the comments.)
I use the Grammarly app to proof my writing, and it constantly corrects me when I say something about “making” a picture. The Grammarly bot insists that I should be saying “take” a picture. I sometimes wonder if my AI assistant is trying to tell me something about our collective discomfort with photographers who stage images like Crewdson. Most people tend to think about pictures as something we slice from the real world. Not something we create out of thin air.
I’m firmly in the “you make a picture” camp. Every cultural object is a creative construction — films, music, drawing, television — and photography is no different. Photographers are biased human beings, not objective reporting machines. And the best photographs frequently resonate on an emotional level. The Crewdson team’s video conversation makes their meticulous attention to detail incredibly clear, and the genuinely collaborative way they work together to create these images is impressive and admirable. The main difference between Gregory Crewdson and most photographers is that he makes photographs like directors make films — collaboratively with a team of people. That’s not typically how we think about picture-making, but it’s never bothered me. And I always appreciate the results.
Whether Crewdson’s style floats your boat is another thing entirely. In the end, how you get there doesn’t matter. Make ’em or take ’em — it’s all pictures in the end. And either way, the practice is good for you! I’ve always believed that. Finally, if you haven’t seen it yet, make some time to watch Ben Shapiro’s Crewdson film, Brief Encounters. I saw this movie a decade ago and need to see it again. You can rent it on Amazon or iTunes or directly from the filmmaker.
That’s it! Thanks for humoring me on this stressful day. Please vote if you haven’t yet. And If you’re looking for a distraction, drop me a line and let me know what you think.
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