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Matthew Weiner Talks Photography, Nude Scenes With Gregory Crewdson

The "Mad Men" creator engaged in a lively discussion with the acclaimed photographer at the inaugural Paris Photo Los Angeles fair at Paramount.
Matthew Weiner

At the Paris Photo Los Angeles opening Thursday night on the Paramount Pictures lot, fair director Julien Frydman introduced Los Angeles County commissioner Tom LaBonge, who proceeded to lock his French companion in an overhand man shake and proclaim that the greatest gift the French ever gave to America was the Statue of Liberty. Not Jean Girard from Talladega Nights? After all, Sasha Baron Cohen was there Thursday as part of the VIP preview. Also attending were art world luminaries like collector Rosette Delug, Hollywood notables Rob Reiner, Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick and those who bridge both worlds including Bob Gersh, David Lynch and Dean Valentine.

Artifice abounded at this first American edition of the famed art fair Paris Photo, which ran through Sunday, including a re-creation of French artist Veronique Bourgoin's studio at a Dutch booksellers booth on the New York back lot in sunny L.A. Standouts among the exhibitors included Filip Dujardin at Highlight, San Francisco; Man Ray prints at 1900-2000, Paris; Tierney Gearon at Atlanta’s Jackson Fine Art; William Eggleston at Gagosian Gallery; and outstanding group shows at Patricia Conde, Mexico City and at Perry Rubenstein, Los Angeles.

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In addition to the standard art fair booths taking place on three soundstages and the inventive solo presentations set on the New York Street back lot, Paris Photo introduced a series of conversations between artists to this Los Angeles edition. Independent curator Douglas Fogle moderated a conversation between Matthew Weiner, series creator and executive producer of the award-winning drama Mad Men and critically acclaimed contemporary photographer Gregory Crewdson. Other conversations arranged by Fogle included multimedia Doug Aitken talking with German sculpture-photographer Thomas Demand on Friday and photographer Catherine Opie with filmmaker-photographer An-My Le on Saturday.

Weiner and Crewdson had a wide-ranging conversation about the similarities and differences in their respective practices. Their interaction was an embodiment of the spirit of the fair, highlighting the ways in which traditional still photography and motion pictures have always been in dialogue with one another and will continue to be that way. As a still photographer, Crewdson stages elaborate suburban American situations, utilizing many of the mechanics of the movie industry. Weiner, as a writer and director of television and film, acknowledged the influence of Crewdson and other photographers in his work.

The Hollywood Reporter had a chance to talk with both Weiner and Crewdson after their conversation. Based on his smooth handling and smart control of the conversation, THR asked Weiner if he ever considered hosting his own talk show. Weiner responded: “I have not given any thought to that. There are people who are really, really good at that. I don’t think I could stand the scrutiny. At least now I can hide behind my work -- when it’s just you, it’s pretty bad." About the fair in general, Weiner said: “I think this is an amazing idea -- incredibly well organized, well publicized. And I have to say that Los Angeles was missing something like this. It’s intellectual, it’s very contemporary, and I hate to say this because once you say something is hip it’s not hip anymore, but it feels a little bit hip. I feel a little out of place here. It feels a little cooler than me, which I like.”

Crewdson was equally excited about the fair. When asked if there were any L.A. artists -- either working in photography or film -- that he was looking at or excited about, he replied: "Yeah, there’s a group of artists, some of them were students of mine at Yale, like Walead Beshty and others who are working primarily in abstraction I would say, but thinking about photography in very conceptual terms. And I think it’s a trend that is very much connected to Los Angeles, and I think that it is interesting. There seems to be this kind of movement here of younger artists that has taken effect."

The conversation between Crewdson and Weiner began with both expressing admiration and affection for the work of the other. Following are excerpts from their discussion, including Crewdson's surprise admission that he doesn't actually snap any of his photos himself:

Crewdson: For me, Mad Men is one of the great works of art of the last decade. It’s such a perfect and beautiful and mysterious thing.

Weiner: That’s really cool. Thanks. We were just talking about the similarity in our works earlier -- obviously there is an attention to detail. I definitely saw your work when I was still on The Sopranos. I had this incredible experience with your work, not just the scale, the detail. There is a confidence in the subconscious, in the dream life -- that which can’t be put into words.

Crewdson: As an artist, what I am searching for in my work is an uncanny situation. In other words, looking at the familiar, the known and finding an unexpected sense of mystery or anxiety or fear. Both our works come out of an American tradition of trying to find a intersection between ordinary life and theatricality. And in my case, my story is confined to a single image, so there is never a before and after in my pictures. I attempt to find that sensation in the singular image. So I’m in awe of you doing that through time. It’s beyond my capacity.

Weiner: Do you have a script? Do you have a setting in mind when you start?

Crewdson: I think in terms of images, first and foremost. And I think partially that’s because I’m dyslexic. When I was young and going through school, academia was very hard for me. Even writing was a painful activity. And I think I came to photography because I understood the still image. I understood it because it didn’t move forward in time. So all of my pictures come out of an image in my head. And then we do write a description that becomes the basis for the picture. But I’m not interested ever in what happens before or after. So I don’t think in terms of motivation, all the things that you have to think about like plot. I’m confined to vision. I want to make it -- because I privilege the single moment -- as beautiful and as complicated and as wondrous as possible.

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Weiner: In my work I am using hundreds of people to help me -- all of whom may be as good at what they do as what I’m doing, and there is a point at which communication is pointless and you have to depend on people’s self-expression in whatever arena you’ve created. I am not a cinematographer and I don’t know that I’m even much of a photographer. I have a good eye -- I didn’t realize there was such a thing. Obviously if you go to art museums and then you see some people get a camera … that person has no idea what they are doing … There is such a thing as a bad snapshot. That’s not a critical thing, it’s just the truth. For me, obviously I have a story and I have these incredible artists that I am working with … and you use a lot of people. These are productions, your photographs. Do you have a production designer?

Crewdson: I think I have as many people on set as you do.

Weiner: Everyone has to treat it as though it’s their art form. It can be pretentious -- I encourage that. I encourage people to take it seriously. I don’t want any light respect.

Crewdson: The contradiction there, I find, because I do work with large production crews and I am very reliant and dedicated to the people that I work, and a lot of the crew I have worked with very closely for many years now, is that in the end, almost despite the fact that there are so many people working on it, the final outcome has to reflect one particular vision of the world. It has to feel that it was made by a subjective voice.

Weiner: It’s true. It has taken a long time for me to figure that out. I remember hearing some early criticism -- sometimes it’s criticism, sometimes it is affection -- about the pace of the show. If you watch an old movie or show -- I don’t care if it’s Frankenstein or Abbot and Costello -- you will be shocked by the difference in the pace. It’s not even like there is so much more information going on now or sound or anything. I was always just very interested in the physical experience of watching a movie. I remember talking to someone one time who was kind of pretentious about my work and them saying "I love your work and why did you do that?" I just remember saying, "I am doing this until it feels normal to me." That actually feels normal -- that’s not an affectation. It’s not a stylistic choice. That feels normal to me. I want to see her finish that speech. I am looking for a kind of naturalism. I am trying to make it feel realistic. … I imagine you standing on your set adjusting everything, and then you have the human factor of your subject -- there are human beings in these things and sometimes you have gifted actors and sometimes they are models, right? That has to be a real challenge.

Crewdson: I never know what to call the people in my pictures -- subjects?

Weiner: Occupants?

Crewdson: Objects? Subjects? There’s a certain kind of detachment in my work, and I think that I always want there to be a sense of disconnection in some way or another between me and my subject. I want a certain kind of distance. That’s why I never want to get to know them. Because I think my pictures are about a kind of voyeuristic detachment and something very intimate, very private. But for me it has to have both of those things.

Weiner: So once you know someone it’s hard to take their picture?

Crewdson: Yeah, I can’t really do it. I don’t photograph my children. Or I have to, like, think to do it. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m not a photographer in that sense. I’m not comfortable holding the camera. And, in fact, I have a cameraman who actually makes the picture.

Weiner: That’s amazing. Come on, that’s incredible. There are some master painters who did this right? In history … who had tons of assistants? But they could paint, Jesus!

Crewdson: I’m not good at taking pictures, or drawing or writing. The only thing that I really, truly know how to do is to come up with these images and then work to get them made.

Weiner: You must be good at talking -- at explaining stuff to people. You must be good at conveying abstract ideas in words.

Crewdson: Persuasive, I think. I say very little. I always say … "less."

Weiner: And there’s pleasure in that control, right?

Crewdson: Oh, yeah.

Weiner also spoke a little about his process with regards to the feature film he is currently completing, You Are Here, which he wrote and directed. The film stars Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Poehler.

“To me, in the movie, there is a moment where there is a woman across the way who Owen Wilson is looking at and she gets undressed,” he said. “Every time I would say cut, I would go in and give her direction and she would hide behind the thing and go and get dressed and at a certain point I was like, ‘I just saw you naked, and you need to understand that for me the exciting part is not seeing you naked, it’s coming in here and telling you when to take off your clothes.'"

What do you think?

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