Sanctuary by Gregory Crewdson

Gregory Crewdson is an American photographer, noted for elaborate scenes of American suburban life, often staged and cinematically inspired and employing teams of actors, lighting engineers and assistants. Indeed, it could almost be thought that his work depicts stills from unmade films…

For this work, however, Crewdson took a different approach to a cinematic subject. He was able to gain access to the back lot of Cinecitta Studios in Rome, the home of many a sword-and-sandal epic. Using the same techniques as in his earlier work, Crewdson has produced a series of black and white still life images of the disused sets.

The images work on a number of levels. In one respect, they are images of scenes that might, again, be film stills, or scenes in the moment before the director shouts ‘Action!’ and an empty set suddenly fills with actors and extras. In another way, they are a record of ultimate ephemera; film sets can be struck and demolished at a moment’s notice if the studio requires the space for something else. And just because these standing sets have proved useful for the sort of productions Cinecitta has made in the past, it doesn’t mean that they will last forever. Crewdson admits that part of the attraction for him is seeing the nuts and bolts of scenery and sets.

We see many of the sets from unexpected viewpoints; shooting according to his own vision rather than a director’s, Crewdson has selected viewpoints that do not necessarily correspond to the camera positions for film or tv. This means that some of the perspectives and juxtapositions are unexpected, and not those ever intended to be seen by viewers.

In a way, this is a record of an abandoned industrial landscape; the artificiality of the sets means that we have to consider them in the context of the work that was done here; we should not be misled into believing that these are habitable spaces places where people’s lives were conducted. Instead, the industry of entertainment was carried out in these places, and records of the physical remains of that industry are few and far between.

The book is prefaced with an essay by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, in which he writes about the images as depicting part of a dreamscape. This dream-like quality is emphasised by many of the images employing a restricted tonal range, but the overall quality of the physical book does not make this particularly troublesome.

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