Many street photographers (and photographers in general) forget about the power of surprise in an image. A photographer who does this incredibly well is Gregory Crewdson. Many of his photographs have a sense of mystery to them that is reminiscent of some of the best cinema. I’m specifically talking about the psychology game that we can play with our images but that we tend not to anymore. It’s the idea of looking vs seeing — and a big part of all this involves framing a scene, too.
In a spotlight piece done by the now-gone American Photo and brought back by an iteration of Pop Photo, the publication shows off some of his best images. The images Ophelia and Beer Dream apply very well to this idea of creating mystery and surprise in the photographs. They make our minds fill in what we’re not seeing.
What you probably don’t know about Gregory Crewdson is that many of his best images are actually composites. We learned this via an article we did previously. To quote it:
“After the burning house shoot, we get a look into his post-production process. It begins with him looking through contact sheets alongside a retoucher. Often his images are pieced together from multiple exposures. Even the retoucher remarks that it’s rare that he chooses the final image from one single exposure, it’s often more composites of multiple photographs all with unique elements that capture what he’s looking for. Crewdson also opens up about his early beginnings working alone in Massachusetts and how his work gradually evolved over time. It’s interesting to see his work go from beautiful landscapes of suburban America to elaborate, cinematic-like images involving people.”AN IN-DEPTH LOOK AT THE WORK OF PHOTOGRAPHER GREGORY CREWDSON
These days, we might not even label what Greg made to be called photographs. Instead, they’re composites — and all the magic happens in post-production. Sure, he shoots the images. But in the age of Photoshop and Unsplash, anyone can take images and make composites to become a single thing. Times surely have changed, and the natural in-camera evolution of the work that Gregory Crewdson has done can be seen in photographers like Jaina Cipriano. She makes everything herself, doesn’t use Photoshop, and creates a sense of mystery that makes us want to peer deeper into the photo.
But what hasn’t changed is the idea of creating surprise and mystery. This can make people increase how long they stare at your image. It’s the difference between them scrolling past it on an app vs them stopping and looking at it. If it’s viewed in a gallery, it’s also the difference between someone getting closer to an image to carefully inspect it in contemplation vs simply looking at it and moving on. This is a huge challenge for photographers these days.
That’s not to say that we all can’t co-exist. But we have a better chance at co-existing when we’re photographing with the mindset of looking vs seeing. When we look and simply capture something, we’re just looking at reality and documenting it as it is. But we apply our ideas and framing to share a different perspective in our images when we see something.
In cinema, a fantastic example of this is in the movie, Pulp Fiction. Every time the briefcase is open, we see a golden light. We never know what’s inside of it, so we think about it differently. It creates a fun mystery that is never solved throughout the movie. That mystery is part of what makes both great cinema and great photographs.