From East Berlin to Suburbia: Research and Gregory Crewdson’s “In a Lonely Place”

With only a few days left until my departure from Berlin, I’m running around trying to gather some more material at the last minute, see people, and see parts of the city that I don’t know so well. Today should fit all of that in: I’m off shortly to the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin, a technical college in Karlshorst (a part of what was East Berlin) to check out and hopefully copy some stuff from their library. The institution, which used to be known as the Hochschule für Ökonomie (Institut for Economics, roughly) during the years of socialism, was one of the leading institutions of higher education in East Germany and the Communist world. Budding élites went there to take courses on economic development, theories of the socialist firm, and socialist development economics. You might think of it as akin to a place like Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford, the institution there where courses in “Development Studies” go on. I’ll be checking out a couple of dissertations that Afghan students visiting the HfÖ, as it was known, wrote in the late 1970s and 1980s, trying to get a better picture of the kind of education Afghan élites would have received at the time and what the assumptions of socialist development were for Afghanistan.

If it all sounds obscure, that’s because it is, but the broader aim will be to contrast some of the assumptions these Afghan graduate students had with earlier generations of people engaged in trying to bring “economic development” to the place – be they Soviet engineers in the 1950s, American consultants in the 1970s, or USAID and State Department bureaucrats today. Such is part of the work pattern of putting a dissertation together: lots of sort of meaningless tasks on a day-to-day basis, but when put together, hopefully they form a mosaic of meaning that makes the weeks, months, or even years spent on the project seem worthwhile. It’s almost the opposite of a blog – individual intelligent (hopefully) tidbits – which is part of why I find doing both sorts of work at the same time healthy.

The Postfuhramt!

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, however. I’m hoping to make it to a screening of a restored print of Citizen Kane at Arsenal, a pretty groovy art house cinema on Potsdamer Platz, later this evening, for one. But perhaps the cultural highlight of the last few days was a visit to C/O Berlin, a photography group in Berlin currently (and temporarily) based at the Postfuhramt, a gorgeous late-19th century building in a yuppyish neighborhood of the former East Berlin. The building used to be an enormous post office for Berlin, hinting at a different era of information distribution. The interior was filled with sorting desks for mail, and the building has a huge backyard, which was once filled with horses to make multiple mail dispatches a day. For now, however, like so many other beautiful but under-used spaces in Berlin, it’s largely used as an exhibition center, at present (and until September 4) for a show by Gregory Crewdson, a New York-based American photographer, entitled “In a Lonely Place.” It comprised three separate series of his photographs: one, a number of photographs of fireflies taken in rural Massachusetts during a recuperative summer following a divorce; two, a series of “making-of” photographs showing Crewdson at work; and three, the photographs he and his crew actually produced of quotidian American scenes.

Gregory Crewdson

 

Sound a bit confusing? It did to me, too, at first. I was not familiar with Crewdson’s work prior to this show, and he has something of an unusual style. According to the interviews with him that I watched, Crewdson, who grew up as the son of a psychoanalyst, spends much of his time trying to compose an image in his head that he thinks he might be able to capture photographically – a family sitting at a dining room table, a woman lying with her baby on a motel bedroom floor, and so on. Once he has his images in mind, however, Crewdson and a small army of lighting and photographic assistants descend on small towns across the United States to set up their shots. It’s not so simple as merely finding the right place or the right angle, though. Rather, operating more like a movie crew than a traditional photographer would, everything has to be set up for a particular shot at a particular angle at a particular time of day, trying to create the mood or vista that Crewdson had in mind. Crewdson himself doesn’t take the shot, moreover – the professional cameramen with his crew do that. Afterwards begins a process of what you might call post-production. Crewdson goes into the photographs with Photoshop and other digital editing tools to make changes to the photograph, sometimes inserting characters, sometimes touching up other elements. The result, in my mind, is something like a hyper-realistic photographic American version of Otto Dix’s paintings: gothic, haunting, dark, critical, and engaging.

An example of Crewdson's photography

Overall I found the exhibition – charmingly held inside of a former basketball court in the upper floors of the Postfuhramt – impressive and haunting. A cinephile friend who brought me to the exhibition in the first place remarked that you really had to be there in person; Crewdson’s photographs are simply enormous, usually ten feet by six feet or thereabouts. Given that they’re so high-resolution and so meticulously detailed, standing in front of them, he remarked, almost forces the viewer to impose tracking shots on the scene at hand. There’s simply too much content, too many possible storylines, too many possible voiceovers, ready to spring from your brain when you look at the image in front of you. Highly cinematic in composition, his photographs invited me to play screenwriter with the image at hand – an experience that I haven’t had quite in some time with photographic exhibitions, and that was quite cool. This felt particularly so in photographs like “Brief Encounter,” a photograph of snowy small-town America where nothing seems to be going on at first glance. But take in the photograph more closely, and you feel like there are multiple storylines about to pop out. You wait for the man on the sidewalk to begin pacing away from the frame, or for the car to drive off. The overall effect is a combination of cinematic thrill – you’re on the set, about to start the take – but also a sense of loss and depression, as many of these photographs focus on a lack of connection between their subjects.

Gregory Crewdson, "Brief Encounter"

Indeed, to move this discussion from one that’s more focused on photography and aesthetics to art as a social criticism, “In a Lonely Place” got me thinking more about how suburbia is used as a site for argument or visions of cultural optimism or despair in American intellectual life today. Throughout Crewdson’s work, I found myself repeatedly thinking of E.M. Forster’s maxim, “Only connect” – the importance of engaging, of making emotional connection with others in spite of cultural, class, or other superficial distinctions between humans. Crewdson’s work, at least for me, seeks to highlight a gothic, dystopian suburban world whose inhabitants find it almost impossible to connect. The photographs appear to take place in the present day, but at the same time they feature the tropes of a lost and soul-sucking mix of 1950s familial conformity as well as anxieties about an America in decline since the 1970s. The technology and clothing of the people who feature in the photographs are not terribly far away from us, but they live in a world that is half from American Beauty and half from the music video for “Freak on a Leash.” These people live in a suburban American that, socially, still seems stuck somewhere between the 1950s and the 1970s. But the infrastructure is crumbling, and there persists the sense that something awful is about to happen. The characters are wrapped up in anxiety, hesitation, loneliness, anguish, etc., and in the photographs of couples or family, hardly anyone makes eye contact, and there is never the sense of a conversation, connection, or love.

Dinner Time in Crewdson's World

In this sense, Crewdson’s work, while beautiful, may connect to a greater American anxiety about the decline of the heartland, the interior, or the suburbs, with a focus on the 1970s as an inspirational moment for this suburban dystopia. It reminds me, for example, of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which also takes place in Rust Belt America (Grosse Pointe, Michigan) in the 1970s. It’s still a world where the suburbs retain some of their promise (something that should be mentioned or discussed in another blog post), but also one in which they are deeply dark; true to the title, all the girls in the Lisbon family kill themselves, and their family abandons the suburban house, leaving the local teenage boys, at the end of the novel, to rummage through a suburban house filled with rotting foot, six inches of dust everywhere, and bathtubs and toilets filled with mosquito colonies.

For better or for worse, I’m off to a world of 1960s concrete dormitories and libraries for today, but Crewdson’s show left me impressed, disturbed, and intrigued – and looking to see more from this artist, as well as to think more about American suburbia as a site for gothic or optimistic visions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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