King of cinematic stills: Gregory Crewdson's casting secrets

Gregory takes two casting photographs for each potential model he sees – a straight-on one and a side shot. Taken in 2007 on a Canon EOS 5D with an EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens. Production casting photo, Beneath the Roses, 2003-2008. © Crewdson Studio, courtesy Gagosian

Fine art photographer Gregory Crewdson is the king of cinematic stills. His meticulously-staged photographs focus on the banal settings of small town America, and transform them into cinematic worlds characterised by atmospheric lighting and uncomfortably passive subjects. With production budgets to rival small feature films, he adopts the role of director on set with an elaborate approach to his quest for the perfect image. And casting plays no small part in their construction, as his partner and casting director Juliane Hiam revealed in this insightful documentary about the celebrated American photographer's processes.

At Poland's Camerimage 2017, where Gregory took centre stage alongside filmmaker David Lynch, Juliane revealed the intimate documentary she'd made about life on set with the fine art photographer. Filming the preparations for his Beneath the Roses series, a 2008 exhibition of panoramic townscapes, eerie forest clearings, and deserted streets, Juliane lays bare Gregory's relentless quest for the perfect image. The resulting 24-minute documentary, There But Not There (full film below), shares the practical processes behind these well-known works.

"I don’t particularly like the casting process – it just stresses me out," says Gregory, when asked about the documentary's subject matter. "With rare exception, I don't want any interaction between me and the subject. When that person gets on set, I think it's good to have a certain amount of tension and discomfort."

The camera is an alibi that allows you to explore traits that you wouldn’t normally explore in person.

And yet the casting images shot by Gregory on the Canon EOS 5D are vital to determining how his final images look. Only two shots are taken of each model at the casting stage: one front on and one with a slight side angle. The amount of detail on show in Gregory's large-format final photographs means that the casting shots are critical to determining how to best capture the essence of the subject. "At its core, there’s something very intense and voyeuristic about photography," he says. "The interaction between the camera and the subject is important for me. There's a slight bit of shame or guilt that's involved in the whole thing, and that's important. The camera is an alibi that allows you to explore traits that you wouldn't normally explore in person."

Model Maurice Peterson looks into the far distance for one of his two casting shots.
As with much of Gregory’s work from the last 25 years, the casting and the final high-end production photography is all set around Massachusetts, where he is a "known quantity". Here, Maurice Peterson stands in front of a gold background, in the summer of 2007. Shot on a Canon EOS 5D with an EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens. Production casting photo, Beneath the Roses, 2003-2008. © Crewdson Studio, courtesy Gagosian

"I’m not that comfortable with a camera," admits Gregory. "But the Canon EOS 5D became a great extension – I loved it. We did a lot of production stills with the camera, and it became a very important part of the process."

Finding the perfect figure

These signs of discomfort in potential models are an important part of what Gregory looks for. "It has something to do with the medium: photography is a moment frozen in time, so you're looking for something that isn't immediately available, rather than something more literal or obvious. One way or another, I'm always looking for this sense of intimacy in terms of the moment."

Casting can be structured, but other times very spontaneous. "There have been occasions where we've seen someone on the street and I'll say, 'That person needs to be in the picture,'" says Gregory. It's at this point that Juliane will approach them to ask if they'd like to take part.

Kate Smith holds a card with her name written on it for her casting shot.
Although Gregory makes the final decision on who features in his work, once someone is chosen there is little communication between the model and photographer on set. Instead, Gregory Crewdson's parter and casting director Juliane Hiam conveys the photographer's direction. Shot in 2007, on a Canon EOS 5D with an EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens. Production casting photo, Beneath the Roses, 2003-2008. © Crewdson Studio, courtesy Gagosian

Over the last 25 years, work has taken place almost exclusively around one area of Massachusetts, meaning that Gregory is by his own admission, "sort of a known quantity." The team works from a script, essentially a one-page description – casting hopefuls read it and decide whether or not they want to be in the picture. "I'll often sit down and show them some of his books," says Juliane. "Many times they'll say, 'Oh my gosh, I know these pictures.'"

A one-page description of the photograph The Haircut
Everyone involved in the shoot gets a one-page description of what Gregory wants the photograph to look like. This is the description for the photograph The Haircut, part of Gregory's recent series Cathedral of The Pines – a description that Gregory and Juliane liked so much that they worked it up into a film screenplay, called Reflective Light. Gregory aims to direct the film in 2018.

Juliane is the one constant figure for the models because as she links the process from casting to shooting. "I'm the one hanging out with them behind the scenes, making them comfortable with what they're going to do," she says. "But then I bring them to the set and remove myself. At this point, they interact with Gregory – at a distance. It's very enlightening – what he sees in the landscape and in people, he sees on a whole other level."

Huck Deisignore successfully posing to feature in a Gregory Crewdson photograph.
Huck is a central figure in the film, and went on to feature in Gregory's recent series Cathedral of the Pines. "Her tree tattoo that she speaks about in the film became something of an inspiration for the Cathedral of the Pines tree emblem," says Juliane. "Many of the crew members got similar tattoos during the making of the series. She has been something of a muse to all of us." Shot in 2007, on a Canon EOS 5D with an EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens. Production casting photo, Beneath the Roses, 2003-2008. © Crewdson Studio, courtesy Gagosian

On set with Gregory Crewdson

Once with Gregory, the models are placed in a set with a combination of natural and positioned light. "We know where the light is going to fall, where they're going to stand, what they'll be wearing. It's just a matter of trying to make very small technical adjustments in terms of their position – shoulders or head, perhaps. But we give little instruction," says Gregory.

Unexpected changes to such a specific vision – be it through weather or unsuccessful casting – can, at times, be difficult on set. But these changes can also be the making of the final image, Gregory explains: "You work really hard to get the image in your head, and then you have to give it up to something else – that’s where the magic comes from. When trying to represent something that's in your head in a physical form, there will always be a necessary disappointment," he muses. "Yet something occurs from this that will stand on its own and you just have to accept it on its own terms."

To find out more about the latest EOS 5D camera, the EOS 5D Mark IV, check out the product page.

Avtor Daisy McCorgray

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