A woman lies pale and immobile, half-submerged in a flooded room. Thin light streams through the dark interior, which is a curtained box of a suburban house. The watery grave of Gregory Crewdson’s “Untitled (Ophelia),” a photograph from his 2001 book “Twilight,” disturbs the viewer with its morbidity and a corresponding lack of reaction from the surrounding environment.
I saw this photograph for the first time when I was 12 years old. A friend e-mailed me a link to Crewdson’s photography along with some exhortation, “This is unbelievable. Check it out.” It was four years before I read “Hamlet” and five years before I discovered more art about suburban life, in movies like “American Beauty” and “The Graduate.” Yet some element of Crewdson’s photography struck a chord in my mind at the time. An indefinite characteristic of his dark suburban macabre resonated with me, a girl who had lived in a city for her entire life and knew the suburbs through only her parent’s childhood memories.
I returned to the photograph years later for a final paper during my first semester at Harvard. Over the course of the assignment, which used photography to talk about film, I realized how art could take part in a larger academic discourse.
The paper I wrote was for Expos 20, similar in style to one I would have written in an English class. Yet across disciplines at Harvard, faculty members invoke and interpret art in their own methodological style. Using Crewdson’s photograph as a point of departure, I set out to investigate how various departments viewed art in terms of its meaning, value, and intention.
Assistant Professor of History and of Social Studies Andrew J. Jewett’s small office in a corner of Robinson Hall is lined with books, but he readily admits that art is not among the various disciplines he’s studied. Bespectacled and enthusiastic, Jewett stares perplexedly the image I’ve pulled up on my laptop. Though he has no formal background in art history, Jewett has done research into the cultural objectification of the middle class, and agrees to give my project a shot.
For this history professor, placing the photograph chronologically and analyzing details are the foremost methods of art interpretation. “There is this sort of reflection on the ceiling, which is sort of weird,” he begins. “There’s a plant that is knocked over in the back there. Everything else is upright.”
“Oh gosh, what is she floating in?” he asks with surprise. “This is difficult.”
“Water,” I answer.
“Well,” he replies, “if I hadn’t known what [the photo] was called, I would have thought, well, it could be blood, it could be chocolate, all sorts of other things.”
Nailing down the substance of drowning wasn’t the only ambiguity Jewett noticed in the image. “It’s hard to identify the [time] period. It could be in a number of different times, in terms of the age of the furniture, and the wallpaper especially. There’s really nothing in it that’s particularly modern except, maybe, the book.” The coffee-table book does indeed have a glossy sheen reminiscent of drugstore mass-market copies, and it provides the only anchor in a temporal vacuum. Having spent his academic career studying the past, it makes sense that cultural artifacts immediately pop out to Jewett.
Focusing on another relic of the cultural past, Jewett recalls the extensive genre of suburban films that center on suburban dissatisfaction. “The first thought I had,” Jewett says, “was of that movie ‘Far From Heaven’ … it’s got all these impossible things going around and people being trapped, and that was what resonated with me when I saw the house, first, and then thought of that movie.”
Film history continues to form the background of Jewett’s interpretation. For every idea he recognizes in the photograph another film pops into his head. “For some reason I just keep thinking of trains and trains of movies. It’s an entire genre, the sort of miserable suburbs movies.” Then he touches on something oddly appropriate, given the photograph’s watery theme. “There’s always the undercurrent of boundlessness—I think of a kind of oceanic feeling that, in some ways, is a positive—but in other ways is soporific … a life of valium, just self-sedation.” In grounding his interpretation with the history of mass culture he knows so well, it comes as no surprise that film anchors Jewett’s analysis.
Describing another movie about the suburbs in the 1950s, he recalls being left with an image of “a stultifying, repressive world.” He transfers this lasting impression to the world Crewdson created—but “Untitled (Ophelia)” is “more than stultifying,” he says. “This is deathly. Fatal.” Jewett imagines the suburbs of Crewdson’s world as malicious; symbolically or fictionally, it has broken down the last defenses of one unlucky inhabitant.