Pittsfield's postindustrial vibe clicks with noted cinematic photographer Crewdson

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PITTSFIELD — Norman Rockwell meets Norman Bates.

That's how Gregory Crewdson describes his cinematic photography in the Berkshires. He borrowed the line from a friend, he said, smiling.

While Crewdson's fictional realities strike a darker tone than Rockwell's, Crewdson said he feels a kinship with the iconic artist's desire to "make ordinary life beautiful."

Crewdson, head of graduate photography for Yale University whose art is displayed in some of the most prestigious art museums in the country, built a career on his Berkshires-based photography. He creates eerily beautiful images of spots he has driven by perhaps a thousand times since his family straddled Brooklyn and Becket in the 1960s and '70s.

Now a full-time Berkshires resident, Crewdson takes his work to Pittsfield this summer for a fresh series of shoots. If you find a road closed at twilight or what appears to be a movie set in the area of Silver Lake, Crewdson is likely to blame.

Keep an eye out for road closures on Kellogg Street on Tuesday, on Silver Lake Boulevard on Friday, and Fourth and Fenn streets July 22.

Mayor Linda Tyer said she's happy to work with artists like Crewdson, because "art leaves legacy." She said there's a sense of pride that comes with knowing that Pittsfield has a place in the international art scene.

"I think he creates magic," she said. "It's good for Pittsfield, because Crewdson photos have been exhibited all over the world in the most acclaimed museums."

The current series might be his darkest yet, he said. It's the first time he has photographed in the city since 2008, when he shot "Beneath the Roses." He long has been drawn to the city for the way it enjoins nature with industry, he says, and for the postindustrial vibe left in the wake of General Electric Co.

"GE stands as this blight," he said. "It motored this city and now stands as this monument in the background."

Plus, he said, "I love Silver Lake."

"There's some dark element to it because of its history," he said, alluding to PCB contamination at the lake near GE's former compound.

The city cleared the lake for recreation in 2014, after GE cleaned it.

Even though he lived in Brooklyn during the week as a kid, he considered the Berkshires home.

Crewdson's photos have an outside-of-time quality, which "probably has something to do with the coming of age in a small city."

The photos aren't period pieces, he said, but they simply lack token modernities that could serve to ground a viewer in the present day. For that reason, he doesn't use cellphones or modern vehicles in his shoots.

"It's supposed to feel just outside of time," he said, "but at the same time still relevant to the time we're in."

Some scenes, like an old taxi depot near Pleasant Street that he calls his "ground zero," tell a story all their own.

"There's a whole world, there," he said.

Crewdson remembers watching "Jaws" as a kid at the Capitol Theatre on North Street, and said time spent here growing up was enough to touch him to the core.

"For whatever reason, it became my aesthetic universe," he said.

Other photographers travel the world taking pictures, he said, "but I'm just interested in one place."

He said the architecture of the place, the natural beauty, continue to stir in him an urge to create scenes based on curious corners of the county.

Crewdson starts his artistic process with solo drives around the Berkshires. Like a mushroom hunter "has their spots," he said he has locations he'll regularly visit. While listening to cultural podcasts, he'll park and stare and begin visualizing the scene, sometimes getting out to take photos with his phone.

"I have these spots all over town that I check in on," he said.

He said certain locations just come to feel like there's something there, "and then I just sit with it for a while."

"It's all about the place to start with, and then it all becomes about art and color," he said.

Crewdson said he likes to cast local people for his shoots because they offer a sense of connection to the Berkshires and to the scene.

He also spends weeks preparing a scene.

For one Pittsfield photo, Crewdson recalls, "we literally had to wait for a snowstorm, close down North Street and get them not to plow."

Then, Crewdson makes heavy use of outside lighting to create a scene.

"In many ways, it's like making a movie," he said.

In fact, the series he is working on this summer spins off a movie he hopes to film with a star-studded cast.

"I'm actually going to use a lot of the locations I was going to use in the movie," he said.

He said the movie fell through because of budget disagreements, but he said he hoped that producers could come to terms with his stipulations.

Among them: The movie must be filmed in Pittsfield.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.

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