Write an essay of 1,000 words on an image of your choice.
The image can be anything you like, from a famous art photograph to a family snapshot, but please make sure that your chosen image has scope for you to make a rigorous and critical analysis.
If you choose a well-known photograph, take time to research its context – the intentions of the photographer, why it was taken, whether it’s part of a series, etc. Add all this information into your essay to enable you to draw a conclusion from your own interpretation of the facts.
It’s not enough to write an entirely descriptive or historical account of your chosen image. You must use the facts as a means to draw your own conclusions about what the picture means to you. You may wish to apply what you’ve learned in Part Four regarding translation, interpretation, connotation, signs, punctum, etc., but be sure you get the definitions correct.
Follow thought associations and other images that relate to the discussion, directly or indirectly. Look at the broader context of the image and its background and specific narrative as well as your personal interpretation of it and what thoughts it triggers for you. Follow these associations in a thoughtful and formal way. Allow yourself to enjoy the process!
There are many good examples of writing about single images (e.g. Sophie Howarth’s Singular Images), which you may find helpful to read before attempting your own. Take note of the level of critical analysis and aim for a similar approach in your own writing. You may write about personal connections but ensure you express yourself in a formally analytical and reflective manner.
Gregory Crewdson – ‘Ophelia’
*Untitled (Ophelia) 2001 by Gregory Crewdson b. 1962
I was first introduced to the photographic work of Gregory Crewdson as a recommendation by my tutor, whilst studying ‘Expressing Your Vision’. I picked up a copy of the book ‘Twilight’. I put some of my thoughts on the Twilight series in a blog post here. I have decided to pick the photograph ‘Untitled 2001 (also known as Ophelia)’ from the Twilight series to critically analyse.
Gregory Crewdson (b. 1962) is an American photographer, best known for his tableau/staged photographic work, often portraying tense psychological scenes that wouldn’t go a miss as a still from a science fiction movie by Spielberg or an episode of Chris Carter’s X-files. Crewdson links a lot of his influence to over hearing the sessions his father would have in the family home as a Psychoanalyst, sowing the seed of interest in the unconscious mind. Other influences on Crewdson include the art of American realist painter Edward Hopper, Crewdson relating a ‘similar emptiness’ in Hoppers work to his own. The American Photographer Walter Evans is another influence, in ‘Capturing a Movie Frame ‘ Crewdson speaks of Walter Evans’ ‘interest in the American vernacular of ordinary life…of indigenous architecture…’ going on to say ‘I feel in my work I have a similar thing that’s kind of controlling aesthetic, to make a perfect façade and then then..sort of…the deep undercurrent of that, what exists beneath the surface.’
In 1998 Crewdson started his work on the Twilight series. This would be a shift from his earlier work, moving into more of a directorial role, working with a large team, akin to a film crew for a major movie. The series has a powerful psychological narrative throughout, often depicting dramatic paranormal scenarios, in many ways the photographs are left open to interpretation by the spectator. The series was shot on a large format Sinar F1 8 x10 Camera with a mix of 300mm and 210mm lenses.
The question I find myself asking with this work is, despite knowing it is staged, is it meant to portray a version of reality, the truth or is this some form of dreamlike, otherworldly interpretation on reality, is this a snapshot of the unconscious mind?
The image Untitled (Ophelia) 2001 from the series Twilight shows the scene of a flooded ground floor, it looks like a living room/lounge. Central within the image is a woman in a night gown, she is floating on her back on the surface of the dark, murky water. Her skins is pale blue, she looks dead, cold to the touch. Her eyes are open but she looks vacant in a transcendent state of mind.
The photograph is influenced by Ophelia from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, found dead in a brook “incapable of her own distress” following the death of her father Polonius and a love denied. In ‘Photography the whole story’ Juliet Hacking references the 1851-1852 painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais as an example of this reoccurrence in art of the woman in the water.
As I deconstruct the image I can see to the left of the woman a coffee table with a glass of water, a bottle of pills, a romantic novel by Nora Robert titled Inner Harbour (1999), there is an ashtray with cigarette butts and what looks like a glass ornament in the shape of a lotus flower. Could this be a suicide or an accidental overdose? Perhaps these pills are sedatives and this isn’t reality, she is dreaming, weightless, motionless upon the water. The sofa behind looks disrupted, a blanket and a couple of pillows lie on the sofa as if someone has been sleeping there or reading a romantic novel wrapped up under a nice warm blanket.
Moving through the scene my eye is then drawn to the clock on the bookcase behind, the time seems to indicate 5:05, my eyes are then immediately drawn over to the right to the windows, is this 5am or 5pm? Then I’m reminded of the title of the series, Twilight so my assumption is this is 5pm but it could just as easily be 5am. A catastrophic event has happened here. The room is flooded so how are the lights still on? Why have they not short circuited? Upon the book case are a selection of books but I can’t see the titles of the books from the print I have, there’s a record player with a selection of vinyl. Upon the top of the book case is a wedding photograph, could this be the love lost?
From the book case I move through the scene in a clockwise manor and I’m presented with the stair case, to which my eye leads me down the steps. It’s at this point I observe the mould and decay on the back wall below the stairs, has this water been here a while? How long has this lady been lying here? Why has no one found her yet? Does she have any friends or relatives that care for her?
Above the stair case is a series of 3 photographs; 2 of women and 1 of a man, placed centrally. The image of the man seems to bear stronger significance, it looks illuminated, is this a father or a husband perhaps? Could this be a reference to Polonius from Hamlet? Moving down the stairwell I see a pink dressing gown draped over the banister, a window above is bathed in golden light, a side cabinet lies on the landing of the stairs, a red torch sits on top of it. Why would the lady need a torch if the lights are on? On the step below is a slipper, followed by the second slipper on the step below that.
To the right of the stair case there appears to be a lampshade in the water. I wonder if this could this be the source of the ladies demise. Did the lampshade drop into the water, did she get electrocuted upon entering the water? There is an open window above, the wind may have knocked the lampshade over. Or is this just a red herring? There are a series of coats on the wall to the right and the windows of the front door again show golden light shining through.,
Coming full circle I am drawn to the old telephone and battered armchair, half submerged in water then back to the motionless woman on top of the water.
Reflection plays a primary role within the whole construction of the image. The water acts as a psychological mirror, its dark blackness gives a sinister emptiness to the entire shot. The water could have been clear or clean to signify purity but the darkness feels intentional, lucid, the blackness of the soul. For me, this is what stings me, this is what Roland Barthes calls the Punctum. The dark reflecting water acts as a means of self reflection, looking deeply inwards at the soul, it draws me back to the image to ponder my own existence.
With such an image as this it is hard to find a definitive conclusion to the storytelling within the image, there is an underlying mystery which I think asks the spectator to form their own conclusions rather than have the photographer (‘the operator’) provide all of the answers within the image. Having watched various interviews with Crewdson this seems a likely conclusion, he likes to put clues within the frame but leave the mystery of the solution to the viewer and to interpretation. For me it poses more questions than it answers, partly this infuriates me but for the most part I absolutely love it for this very reason. I think it’s this emotional conflict or tension that makes this such a fascinating image.
This draws me back to my original query, dream or reality? I am split on how to interpret the image. On the one hand, like a detective I can see the clues/signs within the image to make me come to the conclusion this could be an accidental death or a suicide. However, I prefer the idea that she is dreaming. She walked down the stairs and kicked off her slippers, took some sleeping pills and started to read a book, huddled up under a blanket on the sofa she slowly drifted off. What we are seeing is a mix of reality and her subconscious mind, trapped between the spaces of reality and another dimension.
Word Count: 1396
Twilight Photographs by Gregory Crewdson my thoughts whilst studying the OCA Unit ‘Expressing Your Vision’:
- Barthes, R, 1980. Camera Lucida.
- Cotton, C, 2014. The Photograph as Contemporary Art (World of Art). 3. Thames & Hudson.
- Hacking, J, 2012. Photography: The Whole Story. 0. Thames & Hudson Ltd.
- Higgins, J, 2013. Why it Does Not Have to be in Focus: Modern Photography Explained. Thames & Hudson Ltd.
- Howarth, S. 2005. Singular images: essays on remarkable photographs. 1st Ed. Tate Publishing.
- Kirstein, L, 2012. Walker Evans: American Photographs: Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition. Anv. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
- Moody, R, 2002. Twilight: Photographs by Gregory Crewdson. First. Harry N. Abrams.
- Shakespeare, W, 1997. Hamlet (Wordsworth Classics). Annotated edition. Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
*Image of Untitled (Ophelia) 2001 by Gregory Crewdson b. 1962 reproduced for academic purposes. Copyright belongs to the respective owner.