Tableaux Photography and Gregory Crewdson

The View From Primrose Hill

Tableaux photography means ‘living pictures’ and involves the staging of the image, often through theatrical lighting. I had been aware of the tableaux genre of photography before but had managed to skip the part of the definition that the lighting often played a major role. Therefore I had been of the impression that a tableau was simply a staged photograph; particularly one that was made up of composites in order to tell a story. I would still say some of the composites I have produced before tell stories but they and the example below taken on Primrose Hill are tableaux in a looser sense of the genre. This is because they don’t incorporate any special lighting or cooperation from their subjects. Instead they rely on the composite technique to suggest possible relationships between the figures in the scene and the scene itself by their juxtapositions.

The View From Primrose Hill
The View From Primrose Hill

With the work of Gregory Crewdson however, all variables seem to be taken account for; particularly the lighting and the position/expressions of the people in the scene. He describes his work as ‘frozen moments’ – “It’s a moment frozen in mute, without a before or an after. It’s of this world, but separate to the world as well.”- (Crewdson, 2017). That is because he crams hours and hours of preparatory work into a single frame; often utilising the help of a large crew of stage workers one the scene of the photograph, almost like a movie.

© Gregory Crewdson (2006) - Untitled, Summer 2006
Fig. 1 © Gregory Crewdson – ‘Untitled, Summer 2006’ (2006)

Crewdson usually uses twilight as his preferred lighting situation where the ambient light and artificial light counteract, creating tension. I feel like Crewdson is looking for tension throughout his images, from the lighting to the people’s expressions and their relationships with each other to the message conveyed: one of isolation yet connection. This latter tension is mostly inferred by me from an interview he took part in where an interesting question was asked. The interviewer Hatty Nestor asked: ‘The French philosopher Roland Barthes said: “A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent.” Do you think these photographs demonstrate a similar trajectory, in that they originate from an environment that is nostalgic for you? Is solitude at the heart of these images?’ – (Nestor, 2017). This was interesting for me because I had come across the quote by Barthes before in Camera Lucida and was of the opinion that indeed a photograph couldn’t be separated from its referent. However, I wondered  at what this could mean for the subjectivity of photography. In Crewdson’s response to Nestor’s question he answers this question I had posed to myself before: ‘Speaking of Barthes, … most photographers are drawn to the medium by some separation they feel from the world.’ and ‘That theme runs throughout my pictures, but I do also think photographers want some sense of connection. Those two things come together in this series: a sense of being alone, while also wanting to feel connected.’ – (Crewdson, 2017 cited in Nestor, 2017). So the tension Crewdson is creating is one of separation yet wanting to feel connected and perhaps this is a reflection of his self.

There is also a lot of mystery attached to Crewdson’s photographs and I would suggest this is down somewhat to the staged lighting. If I was to pursue the tableaux genre further I feel it would need to be interiors as I would have much more control over the lighting, without the need for a stage crew! I do think the composite approach I’ve employed is effective but the factor of staged lighting is more key to the tableaux genre.


Fig. 1 Crewdson, G. (2006). Untitled, Summer 2006. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: (Accessed 14/03/2019).

Crewdson, G. (2017) Gregory Crewdson: ‘I wanted the photographs to feel like a suburban window, to give a sense that the viewer is looking into a world’. At: (Accessed 14/03/2019).

Crewdson, G. (2017) Show: Gregory Crewdson’s Cathedral of the Pines. At:  (Accessed 14/03/2019).

Nestor, H. (2017) Gregory Crewdson: ‘I wanted the photographs to feel like a suburban window, to give a sense that the viewer is looking into a world’. [Online] Available from: (Accessed 14/03/2019).

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