Tuesday, September 30, 2008



A profound sense of displacement and uncertainty per-
vades JH Engstr6m's work. On the back cover of his 2004
book Trying to Dance he states, almost programmatically:
"I am always looking for presence. Whenever I try, my
doubts get unmasked ... " Whereas most photographers
use their camera merely as a tool to convey their deeply
held convictions about the ways of the world to their view-
ers, Engstr6m uses the camera and darkroom to pursue
his doubts about whether it is possible to represent any
real understanding of our surroundings. The urgent inten-
sity of his work is predicated upon a radical questioning
of the possibility of a meaningful communication with the
world, an almost Heideggerian sense of "being thrown
into world."
"If there's a word for my work," Engstr6m once
declared, "it's loneliness, mine and the other's." This
attitude is already apparent in his first major work,
Shelter(1997): a series of portraits of homeless women in
a shelter in Stockholm, whom he observed over the course
of three years. Shelter does not conform to any of the
cliches and formulas of socially committed photogra-
phy that one would expect to encounter with this sub-
ject matter. There is no trace of leering sensationalism
nor of saccharine sentimentality. The homeless women
are not portrayed as misfits to be pitied, but they seem
to embody the human condition stripped bare. At first
glance, nothing in these stark black-and-white photo-
graphs indicates that the women are destitute. Rather,
they seem for the most part strong and self-determined,
often shown in close-ups, their faces sometimes in par-
tial view. Only their facial lines or a blank stare indicate
the hardships they have experienced. Some look straight
at the photographer, and respectively at the viewer. Their
expressions range from an almost erotically charged
openness to guarded distrust. Others are photographed
in profile, their faces turned away from the photographer,
lost in thought or hiding from the camera. The images almost
always acknowledge the presence of the photographer, emphasizing
that these are traces of encounters shaped by the photographer's
effort to grasp his subject and the model's willingness or reluc-
tance to reveal herself. Rather than pretending to purvey some
"truth" about homeless women, Engstr6m's images are chronicles
of deeply emotional encounters.
Engstr6m used another technique to underline the subjectivity
of his photographs in Shelter, one that he would refine in later
works: the prints are not made to the standards of traditionally
defined technical perfection. Some look washed-out or overex-
posed; on others we notice smudges and dust, often the edge
of the negative is visible on the print. The imperfections mark
the time that has passed since the pictures were taken and ren-
der the editing and printing process visible. They emphasize that
the viewer is looking at visual interpretations of reality, not the
event itself. Making the picture is just the beginning of the actual
creative act: "I think time is a very important tool in my work
process," he says. "I get to know my photographs. The process
is also very intuitive."
Engstr6m's emphatic approach to this world of outsiders owes
much to the Swedish photographer Anders Petersen, for whom
Engstr6m worked as an assistant before studying at the photog-
raphy and film department at Gbteborg University. Petersen is
best known for his seminal photo-book Caf6 Lehmitz, published in
1978, a series of photographs made over the course of a decade
of the late-night regulars at Cafe Lehmitz, a seedy bar in Ham-
burg. It is a raw and intimate account of this social microcosm of
transvestites, prostitutes, drug addicts, drinkers, and lovers. In
later works, Petersen offered his longtime observations of pris-
ons, nursing homes, and insane asylums that were all marked
by the same loving interest in life on the fringes of society,
beyond the lies and niceties of bourgeois existence. Engstr6m's
work owes much to his teacher's understanding of photography
as a means to explore the challenges of human existence. This
is particularly evident in Shelter, while in later works Petersen's
influence is felt more in terms of the approach to life and photog-
raphy he fostered in Engstr6m. In 2006, Engstr6m paid a tribute
to Petersen by shooting the oddly titled A Film With About Anders
Petersen, which was broadcast on Swedish television.
After the Shelter project, Engstr6m radically shifted his focus. "I
was grappling for three years with the possibility and impossibility
of capturing people's presence. It seemed a natural move for me
to get back to myself and to start taking self-portraits. I needed to
get away; I needed to search for my own identity and moved to New
York, where I began Trying to Dance." This 2004 book was the first
of an autobiographical trilogy that also includes Haunts (2006) and
Wells (forthcoming in 2008).
Trying to Dance, shot in New York and Sweden, presents a
nonlinear juxtaposition of views of Engstr6m's everyday surround-
ings, ranging from self-portraits and nudes to landscapes and
interiors. The book does not offer the viewer an overall narra-
tive that would subsume the meaning of the single image. It is a
visual stream-of-consciousness monologue, an ongoing succes-
sion of moments that retain an importance of their own, frag-
ments of relentlessly passing time. The impression of looking
at memories, rather than documentary images, is heightened by
the variety of the photographs, which span from straight black
and white to heavily color-manipulated. Engstr6m eloquently uses
photographic techniques to evoke his subjective experience of a
given moment. He says: "I can only make photographs of what
I feel, of what results from my encounters with people. In this
regard, my work is completely subjective. At the same time, I am
interested in objectivity, in the fact that since you take photo-
graphs, you always deal with reality. And in this respect, I am not
interested in subjectivity. It's a paradox."
Many of Engstrbm's self-portraits and portraits are nudes.
Nudity here does not serve as means to present an erotically
overcharged vision of life; rather, it represents a degree zero of
identity and difference, a symbol of the ever-elusive presence of
the Other that Engstr6m is trying to grasp. "Vulnerability is a key
word," he says. "I like to question why people are vulnerable and
how people deal with it." This is nowhere more evident than in his
erotic scenes, which depict sometimes beautiful, sometimes des-
perate attempts at human contact. Sexual desire comes across
as an expression of fundamental human loneliness. The feeling
of intimacy that pervades Trying to Dance is intensified by images
of unmade beds, plates of leftover food, and lights reflected on
a windowpane-casual observations that evoke the mundane
physicality of the everyday with a claustrophobic precision. They
are counterbalanced by landscapes, often with a faded, grayish
look reminiscent of watercolors. Their elegiac emptiness echoes
Romantic painting's use of the landscape as a mirror of the soul,
while the rawness and grittiness of the photographs prevents sen-
timentality from creeping in.
The same nonhierarchical approach to life characterizes
Haunts. But whereas Trying to Dance is mostly focused on the
most immediate private sphere of the artist, here images made
in public spaces play a more prominent role. In black-and-white
photographs of strangers on the street or in bars-drunks, a
flower vendor, or a couple lingering in a restaurant-Engstr6m
pays homage to the accidental poetry of chance encounters in
the night. These starkly dramatic sketches of people in the mar-
gins of society add a surreal twist to Engstr6m's method-as
in the eerily absurd photograph of a group wearing masks sit-
ting around a table, or a self-portrait in which Engstr6m wears
a plastic nose. At once violent and humorous, wistful and crass,
Haunts balances extremes in a kaleidoscopic rush of images, a
decentered vision of life.
In his most recent work, the book CDG/JHE (2007), Engstr6m
resorts to a more restrained visual language, almost minimal by his
own standards, in a series of sixty-six images of Paris's Charles de
Gaulle airport (whose flight code is "CDG"). They are shot in color,
yet the prints are tinged in gray, giving them an almost monochrome
feel, as if dust or smoke had fallen on the scene. The printing
endows the photographs of the almost deserted airport with a
haunting atmosphere, at once nostalgic and apocalyptic.
CDG/JHE occupies a special place in Engstr6m's memory, lead-
ing back to an early feeling of displacement:
At the age of ten I moved from the Swedish coun-
tryside to Paris with my parents, and the first thing I
saw was the Charles de Gaulle airport. As a teenager I
traveled a lot between Paris and Sweden and therefore
spent a lot of time at CDG. I was fascinated already
then. The whole environment, the ambiance. It's really
a fascinating airport. Like a fantasy landscape. ...
CDG is connected to a big part of my past, and also
came to signify big changes in my life as a kid. But what
made this project interesting as well is how the world,
and maybe especially airports, changed after 9/11.
They are no longer what they used to be. Before, they
tended to represent freedom, possibilities, openness.
Now, they have come to be a place where fear is very
strongly present.
The deserted airport in Engstr6m's images is a place in limbo, a
nowhere suspended in time. Close-up images of carts and plastic
seats mirror the observations of a bored traveler waiting for his
delayed flight, whereas the silhouettes of two men looking on from
behind a glass wall and views of a parking garage, shot from the
angle of a surveillance camera, convey a sense of claustropho-
bia and paranoia. The modernist architecture of the airport is as
touching as an abandoned spaceship. The exuberant belief in the
future that the airport embodies seems outdated, a leftover from
the Cold War era on which gray dust is settling. The disorientation
of the traveler who is neither here nor there blends with the con-
fusion of an age that has lost the cozy certainties of yesteryear.
The series departs from the celebration of subjectivity that has
defined much of Engstr6m's work so far and provides an almost
abstract definition of the existential homelessness and displace-
ment that is at the heart of Engstr6m's work-the source of its
tenderness and beauty, as well as its power to unsettle and haunt
the viewer.

Jaeggi, Martin. Aperture. "JH Engstrom: Looking for Presence." Aperture no. 190 (Spring 2008) p. 48-55. 2008.


No comments: