Documentary captures photographer Crewdson at work in the Berkshires

The seventh annual Berkshire International Film Festival opened last night in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and continues through Sunday there and in Pittsfield. The closing night film points the lens at Gregory Crewdson, an internationally renowned photographer who’s created most of his work in the Berkshires. Crewdson is busy building a new studio that will place him in Western Massachusetts full-time. New England Public Radio’s Jeremy Goodwin has the story.

Gregory Crewdson draws inspiration from the small-city streetscapes of Pittsfield and Lee, which he photographs in sweeping shots often featuring his subjects—who sometimes are residents of the towns he recruits while driving around scouting locations—from a distance.

“Brief Encounters,” a new documentary feature directed by Ben Shapiro, captures Crewdson between 2000 and 2009 as he created an epic series of photos requiring dozens of crew members, street closures, and lots of help from local police and fire departments‚ especially when his vision for the photo included a burning building.

“That’s the fun part, really. Setting houses on fire or dismantling things, creating floods or snow or whatever it might be.”

As the soft-spoken Crewdson describes his process, dressed casually in a loose-fitting t-shirt and shorts, he sits in the converted North Egremont church he bought last year. Next door, in a small building that, appropriately, once housed the tiny village’s fire department, he is building a new work studio. In the past, his extensive post-production tasks—including color correction and digital touch-ups—had to be done in New York City.

Right now, the studio is little more than a series of open rooms with hardwood floors and counter space. He’ll soon get to work here on his next series of photos, which he plans to start shooting in the Berkshires this summer.

“And then this large wall here is a viewing wall, it’s a metal viewing wall, and so the whole next body of work, we’ll do all the computer work and printing work in here.”

Crewdson’s work possesses a mysterious stillness, the implication that something important just happened or is about to happen—but what? A woman returns home to find a younger woman, perhaps her daughter, standing in the street, nearly undressed; the contents of a bag of groceries are spilled on the pavement. A new mother in a motel room gazes at her sleeping baby. A series of richly realized magical-realist images show sights like a woman floating on her back in a pool of water in her living room, or a forest scene in a garage. His prints have sold for over $100,000 a pop and are in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and many others. 

Susan Cross, a photo curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, says Crewdson’s photos bring to mind the sensibility of films like Stephen Speilberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.”

“Gregory is looking at suburbia and small town American life, but showing us this other side of it, the underbelly or perhaps even the mythical, religious or even otherworldly aspects of daily life.”

And Crewdson has indeed hung a poster-sized photo in his new home of the famous scene from “Close Encounters” in which the Richard Dreyfus character has built an earthen mound in his living room.

“To me this picture’s so emblematic of so much of what I do, like that collision between interior and exterior space, between domesticity and nature, between the normal and the paranormal. All those kinds of collisions, I think for me operate in my own pictures. So I very much relate to his plight.”

When not shooting naturalistic exterior shots, Crewdson builds fully-realized sets on sound stages. For some of the photo shoots seen in the new documentary, Crewdson recruited Carl Sprague, a Berkshire-based set designer with a long history working on theatre productions and films like Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tennenbaums.”

“Gregory really has a fine disdain for, you know, physical reality when it comes to the imperatives of the image.”

Sprague says Crewdson’s obsessive concern with detail led to many on-set adjustments.

“‘Let’s lower this ceiling from ten feet to eight feet. Ok, if this room here were only, if this set were ten feet wider this way, maybe 15.’ This is all stuff that’s made out of plywood with wallpaper on it and so forth. It’s not india rubber, you can’t just stretch it!”

Crewdson said he’s not sure exactly why he’s made a habit of working in the Berkshires, but he’s embraced the notion of building a body of work around a specific geographic region.

“I just think that there are artists that are associated with certain settings, certain places. And this is my place.”

“Brief Encounters” screens at Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe Theatre on Sunday. For New England Public Radio, I’m Jeremy Goodwin.

 Maple Street, Pittsfield, Mass. production still, 2003 ®Crewdson

Maple Street, Pittsfield, Mass. production still, 2003 ®Crewdson

Untitled (Birth), 2006 ®Crewdson

Untitled (Birth), 2006 ®Crewdson

Untitled (Ophelia) production still, 2001 ®Crewdson

Untitled (Ophelia) production still, 2001 ®Crewdson

Untitled (Ophelia), 2001 ®Crewdson

Untitled (Ophelia), 2001 ®Crewdson

Untitled (Brief Encounter), 2007 ®Crewdson

Untitled (Brief Encounter), 2007 ®Crewdson