In the summer of 1996, Gregory Crewdson was 10 years out of art school and his career was going nowhere. Currently known for his mega-expensive to produce, quasi-Spielbergian high-production setup photographs of people standing around in stupors, looking up at spotlights or dully into mirrors, in the mid 1990s Crewdson, with nothing to lose, spent the summer at his parents’ place in Massachusetts taking pictures of flickering fireflies against the night sky.

These pictures, never shown before, will never be as wildly popular as Crewdson’s ultra-control-freak, glitzy, geeky show numbers. To his credit, few photographers of late have been able to reach an almost mass audience the way Crewdson has. Hang a Crewdson in a museum and a gaggle of viewers will gather around it. But lately these pictures have become perhaps too canned and melodramatic.

The firefly pictures not only give us Crewdson unplugged, they provide a touching clue to the origins of this artist’s more popular work. All fireflies that flash are males looking for love. Female fireflies, meanwhile, basically lounge in the grass smoking insect cigarettes and eating bonbons as the males go through this desperate, pathetic attempt to impress them by lighting up the brightest and flying the highest.

It’s a perfect metaphor for how hard and to what lengths Crewdson has always been willing to go to gain our attention and how underneath it all he wants to connect. It’s also wonderful to be able to look at Crewdson’s pictures without him directing our attention this way and that. These pictures show Crewdson simply lighting up rather than manically controlling every inch of the picture.

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