Apocalypse Now – On the Photographs by AES+F and Gregory Crewdson
In a recent talk entitled The End of Ego, Fred Ritchin stated that much of photography is reactive. According to him, most photographers simply sit around waiting for the apocalypse to happen. And when it finally does, only then do they get up and proceed to take some awesome pictures.
This might be the case for many practitioners, but not so with American photographer Gregory Crewdson and Russian art collective AES + F. The subjects in their work clearly anticipate the apocalypse, and occasionally they even actively pursue their own doom. But the pictures of both Crewdson and AES + F are highly stylized, the result of an intensive group effort, and entirely fictional.
Crewdson for example goes to great lengths to construct his images. Together with his team, he creates entire dioramas in studios, or when working outside, he closes down roads in small American towns and then manoeuvres everyone and everything into exactly the right place. What he cannot do on scene, he takes care of during the post-production. This approach results in beautiful and haunting photographs. You can almost feel the inevitable disaster lurking around the corner. His cinematic images hint at entire story lines. The main characters often seem lost in thought. They sit. And wait. Wait for the inevitable. Wait for the disappointment of being rejected by a lover. Wait for their cheating partner to come home. For their children to turn their backs on them and walk out of their lives. For natural disaster to strike. For burglars to rob them of their possessions, their dignity, their lives. The light, or perhaps the lack thereof, plays an important role in creating this illusion. Dusk is always falling. Artificial light is sparse, and often only visible because it has somehow managed to wriggle out from in between the closed curtains.
The pictures are permeated by a profound sense of sadness and doom. References to literature, photography, cinema and television are rife. The image of a man sitting despondently in his chair staring at a hole in his debris-strewn floor immediately makes me think of the hurricane episode in Desperate Housewives. The reflection of a naked woman in the trailer looking towards a boy outside in a puddle somehow reminds me of the nocturnal photographs by Rut Blees Luxemburg. The photo of a man standing in the middle of the street next to a car in the pouring rain could be depicting Tom Hanks, taken straight from Road to Perdition. The burning house image is a reference to Joel Sternfeld’s photograph of the house on fire in a field full of pumpkins. The woman sitting in her night dress on her bed with rose petals strewn all around her: it can only refer to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. Several pictures of a skinny elderly woman with saggy breasts in her bathroom instantly conjures up Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The photograph of the little boy in his green shirt looking up in awe towards a railway bridge as well as the image of the lonely man pushing his shopping trolley down a deserted street, and I believe I am looking at a depiction of Cormac McCarthy’s absolutely brilliant novel The Road. Crewdson’s strenght is that he takes these iconic and emblematic visual elements and makes them entirely his own. In turn, parts of his imagery seem to find their way into wider popular culture.
But whereas the subjects of Crewdson’s work are despondently waiting on their fate, the main characters of the series Action Half Life and the follow-up series The Last Riot by AES + F seem to be actively participating in their own destruction. In Action Half Life we see beautiful children on the verge of puberty happily carrying rocket launchers and assorted weaponry against a rocky and sandy backdrop. Their stance, the way they hold the weapons in their arms, it is almost as if they are on a photo shoot for a brochure for an arms dealer. Their white undergarments jar against the jagged landscape. Their faces are blank, devoid of any emotion. The work deals with the glamorization and the glorification of war by the use of cleaned up and censored imagery. It also criticizes the involvement of children in violent computer games. It may even refer to the increasing use of computer simulations to train soldiers in warfare and the growing use of drones and related technology during combat, which increasingly removes soldiers from the actual bloodshed.
The Last Riot continues where Action Half Life left off. In these images the children have turned into teenagers. They are dressed in white tops and army trousers and boots. They are fighting each other against an industrialized background. These backdrops in and of themselves remind me of Joan Fontcuberta’s Landscapes without memory as they are so generic but hyperreal at the same time. The youngsters carry swords, daggers and baseball bats. Their faces are set to display stylized emotions, in the process becoming strangely devoid of any feelings at all. As a result, the images are deeply unsettling. The postures of the adolescents and the composition of the photographs all hint at an intimate knowledge of paintings from the Renaissance. But in these pictures no blood is spilt at all, which makes the imagery even more alienating.
To come back to my starting point: Ritchin wants photographers to produce work to prevent the apocalypse. He wants photography to make the world a better place. He sees opportunities for documentary photographers to work in collectives, for photographers to become intimately engaged with the communities they portray. His statement is intended to spur photojournalists and documentary photographers to create work that makes a difference, that does not merely report on bad things after they have already happened. Neither Crewdson nor AES+F are documentary photographers, but their work is no less urgent, no less the result of a collective effort, and in some ways perhaps even ahead of the curve. After all they investigate and critique current trends in society by making these beautiful but haunting and perturbing images.
Gregory Crewdson. Beneath the Roses. ISBN: 9780810993808.