Student Name: Jolanta Jasiulionyte Course title: CG Arts and Animation, year 1 Unit title: Environment Date: 22 January

2010 Word Count: 1502 Essay question: How ‘The Uncanny’ is created in Gregory Crewdson’s pictures?


How ‘The Uncanny’ is created in Gregory Crewdson’s pictures?

Investigation of ‘The Uncanny’ appeared to be not a straight forward task, therefore only the more interesting. There is a need to better understand what uncanny means or feels, since its conception stands somewhere between horror, oddness and familiarity. In order to get a better idea about it it’s a good to research what philosophers think about the uncanny (Sigmund Freud’s essay the Uncanny), to look for examples where uncanny is created (Raymond Carver1 stories) and choose an artist as an example to investigate how this feeling is created. In particular I chose to analyse one Gregory Crewdson’s work. To begin with, the question to answer is how ‘The Uncanny’ is created in Gregory Crewdson’s pictures (talking about one in particular). I’ve concentrated on separate parts and components of the image that served to create the specific ‘atmosphere’. So to begin with, here is something more about the artist and his working technique.

Gregory Crewdson is a contemporary photographer. His photography, not without a reason is said to occupy a space between photography and film. What’s more, “In using the elaborate methodology of the filmmaker to produce what he terms ‘psychological realism’, he invites the viewer into a series of ambiguous scenarios that are both uncanny and yet inviting”. (Dyer, 2005: 24) So there is nothing accidental in his pictures. Crewdson and his large, about 150 people, crew intentionally construct the feeling of uncanny in the pictures. In order to generate the atmosphere needed, he uses cranes, fog machines, 50 or more lights, arranges colour palette, adds or


Raymond Carver was a short-story writer and a poet. His short fiction is often depicted realistic in minimalism.


removes details and in fact, does whatever it takes just to express the feeling of uncanny in his works.

Uncanny is a feeling hard to describe. But as Sigmund Freud2 first explains “That the uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar” (Freud, 2003:132) To depict this better, starting from the homely and familiar there’s this further development to something strangely interfering with the domestic environment and the feeling of cosy and familiar, instead creating this new feeling of odd, unfamiliar and silently still. Gregory Crewdson’s himself is well aquatinted with Freudian theories as he marks ‘I was directly influenced by that particular essay [The Uncanny]’ (Dyer, 2005: 28). Therefore it means, this artist not only arranges every detail in the photographs, but does that in service to generate the feeling of uncanny. To talk more concretely, I chose a picture from Crewdson’s series “Beneath the Roses”.

“Beneath the Roses” is said to be Crewdson’s most ambitious project, where he creates places so well known but having the quality of never entirely seen before. It’s a series of photograph of ‘captured moments’ of “Parallel universe teeming with neuroses, harboured secrets, unhealthy obsessions, repressed desires and uneasy alliances” (Reich, 2007:71). One of the very interesting examples of such is the ‘Maple street’ picture.


Sigmund Freud, a psychologist and a father of psychoanalysis, was a influential thinker of the 20th century.


Figure 1. : Crewdson, Gregory. (2004). Mapple St., from the series Beneath the Roses

The picture shows a girl leaving taxi in the rough- looking street. There’s this beautifully leaned tree and a house on her left side. That’s what we see at a first glimpse. But when scrutinising further we become aware of other elements as well, that help create the atmosphere.

The Composition: To begin with, the character is positioned near the centre of the image, but leaving him small. As if though he is a main focal point, he becomes merely a part of the image. Author here marks that, “The drama comes out of that relationship between


the small figure and the larger landscape” (Reich, 2007:76). The figure stands alone there – every other objects (the house, the car, the tree) is further away from her – looking isolated and alone. I would assume that this is where the feeling of loneliness comes from.

Colour and Lightning. Author mentions, he “always thought of lightning and colour as the central components [in his works]… but this has evolved … to something quite complex and emblematic”. (Reich, 2007:75). It means, once again, it isn’t without a purpose and that it brings its share of meaning into the picture. First of all the colour palette here is warm and silent. We see tones of brown (the house), warm gray (the street, the car) over the picture. In contrast to the warm and “cosy” colours we see cold green (the tree) and blue (the background and the sweater girl is holding) colours working along in agreement with the warm tones. There are no very ‘strong’, contrastive or intensive colours (like for example bright red or blue) that would interfere with the palette chosen as there are no harsh sounds braking a moment of silence, therefore, the colour palette here helps to create this feeling of utter silence . The lightning here seems very soft and weightless. Gently falling on the objects of the image (for instance on the roof of the taxi, on the main character). We see square lit windows in the background, a streamed light from the side of the tree, spot light in taxi’s interior and very soft and flowing light all over the house in the front. Once again there’s no “separate” or definite – different types of lightning are seen in every part of image; If there is one stronger ‘spot’ light, there are definitely few other such ‘spots’ interacting harmoniously . “The lightning has become increasingly quite, more


textured and subtle. I’m working very hard to integrate the light with other elements in the frame, so that is just one part of the world of the picture” (Reich, 2007:75) answers Gregory Crewdson when asked about the use of lightning in “The Mapple street”.

Even though the lightning plays along with other elements and is harmonious it is still cold and sterile in a way. As Richard Sands, the director of photography marks “I didn’t want to use warm light <…> I thought it should feel not like a home that wants her in the family”. The outcome we get than is an environment that feels silent and still but yet unwelcoming and cold. The “unwelcoming” (the uncanny) is felt even more when we remember that this place is supposed to be her home. There are also few other “tricks” this creator uses and that are noticed only when the picture is observed deeper.

Details. Fog is one of the elements Crewdson uses almost in every picture in order to create this specific feeling. It brings the subtle feeling of thick and heavy and very physical feeling of air. No secret that the fog has this attribute to be seen only from a distance. This brings a very interesting effect. In this example, in particular, it seems as if there’s a territory of cosiness for the character (that is the territory very near her) and the ‘out there’ territory, which is covered more by fog, thus in a way mapping out the friendly/alien territory for the girl. It is only subjective speculations, but then the author of the image reveals that “The viewer is left to imagine …what the pictures are about” (Reich, 2007:72).


The way the objects look and are arranged also help to generate the feelings of uncanny. For instance the scarred and blemished street or the edgy shadow from the tree. The model of the taxi car also reminds of something very well known in the past, but now appearing nostalgic. What’s more there is something sad and deep about the pose of the model. She is turned away from both the car, which she’d might just left and from the house, that supposedly is her home. Every detail appears to tell its own bit of story and to lay its part in the whole puzzle of creating the uncanny scene.

And there is more. If we paid attention more instantly we’d become aware of other little details. To make a point of this paragraph, “It’s the details that provide clues” (Higgins, 2008:47). It is the barely noticeable, that help generate the feeling of ambiguity, uncanny in Crewdsons works.

To sum up, Uncanny has its tool kit or rules. No secret, we can get this feeling in everyday’s life, and even without special arrangements, but as Sigmund Freud marks in the essay mentioned above, a creator in his works has more freedom not only to create but also to intensify the feeling of uncanny by arranging the fictional world. That is particularly true in Crewdson’s imagery. He was properly acquainted with the set of rules, as he, as I mentioned, read the same Sigmund Freud’s essay and further more. Where he took control over every element in the picture (would it be composition, lightning, colours, details), adapted everything in a way to serve this particular feeling. Because of this wasn’t for him a very straight forward task to do, his works appear only the more interesting.


Bibliography: Books: Freud, Sigmund. (2003).The Uncanny. Penguin. Websites: Augustine, Luhring. (2009) Gregory Crewdson (Accessed 4 December) Liukkonen, Petri. (2008). Raymond Carver (1938-1988). (Accessed 19 December 2008) Thornton, Stephen. (2005).Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). (Accessed 7 December 2008) Periodical Articles: Ayers, Robert. “The AI Interview: Gregory Crewdson” (March. 2006). Dyer, Richard.Photography in London. Gregory Crewdson and the Suburban Uncanny. Pp. 24-28. Higgins, Ria.“One Shot Wonders”.The Sunday Times Magazine.(March 16, 2008). Pp. 42-51 Pincus-Witten, Robert.(2008).Artforum. Gregory Crewdson: Luhring Augustine.pp.457. Reich,Susan.(2007). Photo District News. Lighting Master. Cregory Crewdson’s Twilight World. Pp. 70-80


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