Gregory Crewdson: Sanctuary


Before looking in general at photographs that use the absence of life as a metaphorical technique I want to look more closely at Gregory Crewdson’s Sanctuary (1). Sarah Pickering’s Public Order (here) was referenced as an example of this kind of work and I wanted to consider how other photographers had developed series in places that might be loosely termed fabricated realities.

Crewdson is best known for his large scale, cinematic production photographs that I previously considered (here); his work divides opinion being seen by some critics as Jeff-Wall-Lite but I have always been intrigued with his ability to invest photographs with psychological atmosphere and narrative ambiguity. The absence of human subjects, the lack of a huge production crew seeking a single shot, and the move from colour to monochrome are all significant deviations from Crewdson’s established practice but once he had chosen to work within a different framework he retained a strong link to his earlier work by creating a series that documents the sets at Cinecittà, Rome’s answer to Hollywood.

The monumental but decaying sets that filled the backlot at Cinecittà in 2009 when Crewdson visited the site appear to be divided between Ancient Rome (for the HBO drama Rome) and 19th century New York ( for Scorsese’s Gangs of New York), a strange juxtaposition that we could invest with a commentary regarding the similarities between the two cultures but I doubt this was in Crewdson’s mind. The decayed and neglected structures offer a metaphor for the history of modern Italy from the point in 1937 when Mussolini commissioned the studios to “serve the aligned causes of cinema and fascism” (2: p.9); its heyday from 1937 to 1943 when government sponsorship funded the making of almost 300 films (3); collapse during the German occupation and its rejuvenation in the fifties and sixties with iconic films like La Dolce Vita, Ben Hur and Segio Leone’s ultimate spaghetti western Once upon a Time in the West through to its gradual but elegant decline as a studio pretty well ever since (i).

Crewdson’s declared interest was in “the blurred lines between reality and fiction, nature and artifice, and beauty and decay.” (1: p.95). And, these are indeed the overriding impressions gained from his carefully composed black and white images. The fabricated reality of a movie set will always create interesting paradoxes, real and tangible but flimsy architecture whose only function is to mimic a more solid reality. A suggestion of functionality as one thing – homes, temples, shops, forums but whose only function is a pretence of those things.

From the series Twilight - Gregory Crewdson

From the series Twilight – Gregory Crewdson

This is not new territory for Crewdson, his use of sound stages as the set for his constructed images very directly questions where the line is drawn between reality and fiction and, as seen in the example from Twlight shown above, he is interested in structures behind structures, the skeleton under the skin. In Sanctuary he is drawn to the scaffolding that supports the sets, sometimes very obviously so that we have no doubts of the temporality of the architecture but more often quite subtly so, out of context, we cannot be sure whether we are seeing the reality of Pompei or the fantasy of Cinecittà.

Both types of photographs have an aesthetic appeal and narrate the story of the studio but the more blurred the lines the more ambiguous and thereby interesting the image. It is in these photographs where reality and fiction are at their most interchangeable that I see contemporary Italy. A place where, away from the superficial glamour of Milan, the tourist funded hot-spots of Tuscany and Venice or the industrial landscapes of Turin the fabric of towns and cities decay to reveal layers of history so the open doors of a palazzo might equally reveal modernity or medieval stone work and where modern cash-strapped Rome swirls around the crumbling remains of both Caesars’ and Mussolini’s empires. A country surrounded by the monuments of its past and deeply divided and confused about its future; a culture where superficiality has been raised to become a cultural norm, our interpretation of the surface more important than an understanding of the realties that lay behind the facade. Italy is a masquerade so Crewdson’s exploration of the decaying facades of the edifices of its film industry appears appropriate and meaningful.

Plate 14 from the series Sanctuary - Gregory Crewdson 2009

Plate 14 from the series Sanctuary – Gregory Crewdson 2009

The absence of people here is as obvious as in Pickering’s work but like Public Order this is a landscape dominated by human intervention, even the puddles were introduced by Crewdson. It seems strange to talk of tension in a series that is so still and quiet but like Public Order there is tension created by the theatre being empty; one expects or imagines the actors returning to the set, the street gangs reappearing in front of the New York tenements or Marc Anthony walking around a corner; we recognise the set being ready for action and the realisation that it will never happen creates both tension and melancholy. Crewdson talks of his interest in “telling a story, in narrative and the limitations of photographs” (6: p82) and whilst on first glance this objective is best achieved in his directed work, he achieves something here that holds the narrative of a place in a broader way and retains enough ambiguity at the shot by shot level to allow the viewer to imagine fictions playing out within the sets.

On face value this series seems to be departure from directed human subjects to documentary and his straight, careful style of capture strengthens the feel of these photographs as a historical document, a record of a place important in the history of modern Italian culture that is in decline and perhaps that is the overall impression that we are left with but I would argue that Crewdson has found an intriguing balance between documentary and metaphor as well as between reality and fiction.

Notes on Text

(i) It has been suggested that the current owners of Cinecittà are more interested in developing the site as a theme park and events venue than as a film studio. (5)



(1) Crewdson, Gregory (2010) Sanctuary. New York: Abrams

(2) Scott, A.O. (2010) Essay within Crewdson, Gregory (2010) Sanctuary. New York: Abrams

(6) Bright, Susan (2011) Art Photography Now (revised and expanded edition 2011). London: Thames and Hudson.


(3) Rome File (ND) History of Cinecittà (accessed at Rome file 25.9.16) –

(4) Cinecittà Events (accessed at Cinecittà Events 25.9.16) –

(5) Povoledo, Elisabetta (2014) Investing in Fantasy to Save a Fraying Reality: Cinecittà World Theme Park Opens Thursday in Italy (accessed at the New York Times 25.9.16) –

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