In the photograph, the camera frames the window of a rundown motel room on a snowy evening. Inside, a young mother in a pale green nightgown sits on the side of a bed gazing sadly at her sleeping baby curled up on the far side of the mattress.  This is one of the hauntingly beautiful images in “Brief Encounters,” a documentary about the photographer Gregory Crewdson and his project “Beneath the Roses.“

The son of a Brooklyn psychoanalyst, Crewdson and his family spent summers at a lakeside cottage near Pittsfield in western Massachusetts.  It is to this area, with its abandoned shops and dilapidated buildings, that Crewdson returns over and over again to search for settings for his intricately composed photographs.  These towns, he says in the film’s narration, “were really backdrops for a more submerged psychological drama,” one that blurs the line between reality and fiction. Crewdson approaches his photographs as if making a film, with a crew of as many as 60 people and a cast composed of the townspeople he encounters in his travels.  But unlike a film, the photographs capture a single moment in time.  For Crewdson, what happens before and after is of no interest to him. Rather, he is concerned with just that one frame, “a perfect moment.”

Crewdson creates his worlds as a way to explore his own anxieties, fears and desires.  The images he constructs are exquisitely detailed and psychologically complex, inviting multiple interpretations by viewers. An engaging narrator, he directly addresses his own fear of failure, how he struggles to overcome it and to continue working despite periods of self-doubt.


Brief Encounters is a documentary gem.  Intelligently directed by Ben Shapiro, it was filmed over the course of a decade, beginning in 2000.  It is a process film—we see Crewdson at work and listen to him describe his creative process.  The camera lingers over the photographs, allowing time for the viewer to enter Crewdson’s world.  The original score by Dana Kaproff adds a rich tone to the work.  Less effective are the interviews with writers and photographers who provide additional commentary about the artist throughout the documentary.

The film would be a worthy addition to any medical humanities course, particularly ones that focus on the art of observation.  Each image is a springboard for group discussion.

Primary Source