Suburban stories: tales of the unexplained

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled (Bus Fire), 2002 (from the series Twilight)

Given the cinematic feeling of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hollywood series, it seems like a good time to look at Gregory Crewdson’s representations of American suburbia, a place that feels oddly familiar from films. In Crewdson’s suburbs, all is not well. The detached houses and neat front lawns might suggest otherwise but these are places where dystopian nightmares are more likely to be played out than the American dream. Of course, this is also familiar from the movies – think Blue Velvet – it’s just that here we have to fill in the gaps ourselves rather than watching the dream unravel on screen.

Untitled (Sewer Mystery), 1999 (from the series Twilight)

The stories here aren’t clear. It’s always immediately apparent that something is wrong. Why is the school bus on its side for instance? Has it been involved in an accident – admittedly the most likely explanation – or have the children overturned it in some sort of post-school mutiny? It’s easy to understand why the police and fire service are attending to a car that’s on fire but the strange glow from the storm drain – suggesting, in perhaps too obvious a way, that all is not well beneath the surface calm of suburban life – is harder to comprehend.

As with Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hollywood the evening light provides more than just an atmosphere. This is twilight, the day is drawing to a close, night is closing in and anything is possible as the darkness encroaches. Indeed work from diCorcia’s Hollywood and Crewdson’s Twilight were at the heart of an exhibition at the V&A called Twilight: photography in the magic hour (I’d love to give a useful link here but the V&A website is bafflingly devoid of information); this notion of a ‘magic hour’ is a useful one in considering the narratives that lurk within all Crewdson’s pictures.

Untitled, 2001 (from the series Twilight)

It’s possible to read many of the images in the Twilight series as normal life that might be going a bit wrong, but there are often other possible scenarios – is the beam of light from the sky a police helicopter searching for a miscreant or is it some sort of unexplained light, possibly of alien origin? – but in some there is a strong sense of fairy tale.

Untitled, 2001 (from the series Twilight)

And though most have a strong connection with cinema – it’s hard not to read most of these pictures as film stills, it’s just that they’re stills from films that don’t actually exist (a bit like Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills one of which I wrote about here some time ago) – a few have very specific sources and here the connection is more likely to be with painting than film. But of those, more in another post. Probably.

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