After serving as modern Rome in La Dolce Vita, the California desert in Once Upon a Time in the West, 19th-century Manhattan in Gangs of New York, and dozens of other places, the sets have been abandoned and left to the elements. But instead of a taste of these fantasy places, what emerges from the photos is a strong sense of the studio property itself. The ground is flat, bare, and puddled, and the structures are overrun with vines and weeds. The dark grey tone and depth of detail give the prints a sobering physicality.
Perhaps the sets at Cinecittà were a ripe subject for Crewdson to photograph so directly because they have a strong sense of fiction already built into them. The photographer has little invested in their illusions. In most photos the dense steel scaffolding that supports the sets seems to be devouring them. And he has little invested in verisimilitude. In reality Cinecitta is a thriving, functioning studio, and its executives offered to repair and weed the sets before he photographed them. Crewdson’s crew lit fires on site to create smoke, and hosed the ground to settle dust. The images in Sanctuary don’t settle easily into fiction or reality. Like dreams, they have both mixed up in them.