Gregory Crewdson: Sanctuary at the Gagosian Gallery

Photo © Gagosian Gallery
The idea behind photographer Gregory Crewdson's most recent work – Sanctuary, a series of forty-one black and white images taken predominantly amongst the ruined and now overgrown sound stages and sets created for the HBO television drama Rome at the Cinecittà movie studios and currently on show at the Gagosian Gallery in Rome - first came to him on a trip to the site in 2007, when he was in the city for a major retrospective of his work at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni.

As the photographer joked during an encounter at MAXXI last week, where he discussed both this and past projects in an enormously enjoyable conversation with the Chief Art Critic of the New York Times Michael Kimmelman, setting up this particular photo shoot hit an immediate and quintessentially Italian setback – after FedEx-ing his proposal and a box full of books and catalogues of his work to Cinecittà, it took the studios a staggering six months to get back to him, claiming when they eventually did reply, that they had only just received his package! Thankfully for us all, however, Crewdson was not discouraged by this, and was eventually able to start shooting in June 2009. The exhibition may have had its world premiere at the Gagosian's Madison Avenue venue in September and October last year, but the artist seemed keen to emphasis the emotional importance of bringing this very special set of photographs back home to Rome.

Superficially, this show would seem to mark an enormous sea change in Gregory Crewdson's career – instead of the very large, highly cinematic and often downright eerie scenes of urban despair and alienation, peopled with lonely figures, these moderately sized black and white digital prints are almost, with one notable exception, totally devoid of people and feel almost like landscapes. As one moves from image to image, however, the continuity with his earlier works becomes apparent – there is still a merging of fiction and reality and a sense of profound melancholy here. There may be no people, but the ghosts that walk these empty sets are very much present. The one image which does feature people is, in fact, the most explicitly reminiscent of his previous works. It's a stunning shot of a woman sitting in the booth at the perfectly framed Cinecittà front gates, as a car drives through them. As he explained to Kimmelman at the MAXXI event, this was Crewdson's homage to Fellini and the opening scene of L’Intervista which features the fog shrouded gates, in a movie all about about making a movie at Cinecittà – what could be more appropriate? (Watch Crewdson's team setting up this shot below or click here to watch on YouTube.)

Shows at the Gagosian are always rewarding, but this is one that I hope to return to several times over its run – one visit simply isn't enough to take it all in. Shot in extremely high definition, these digital photographs are dense with detail and texture: puddles of water and the sheen off the cobbled streets; grasses gone to seed and flowering weeds; crumbling archways and alleys; and always the recurring motif of scaffolding, which Crewdson explained interested him particularly, as a way of creating both a sense of collapse and of enhancing the layers and facades that permeate the images.

As a wonderful bonus, on visiting the Gagosian last weekend I was lucky enough to find Gregory Crewdson had dropped by the gallery and I was thrilled to be able to meet him in person and exchange a few words.

Gregory Crewdson - Sanctuary continues at the Gagosian Gallery at Via Francesco Crispi, 16 until 5 March, 2011. Highly recommended!