JH Engstrom Talks Photography, Transformation and Love for Paris

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“I’m still in love with Paris. But then we are not in the beginning of our relationship, so I might look at it with more nuances than before.”

JH Engstrom Interview, Brad Feuerhelm, ASX, April 2015

JH Engstrom’s incredible body of work circumnavigates the contemporary tradition of big dumb color photographs of abstracted nothingness for that of a diaristic and playful homage to his precedents. Working closely with Anders Petersen early in his career, Engstrom has become the successor to a number of photographer’s whose mode of work can loosely be based in the humanist tradition of photography. That is not to say, Engstrom’s work has any of the aforementioned traditions crutch of the saccharine and nostalgia’s formed from a post-war twentieth century. He manouevers with grace between color and black and white, but also considers the mistake as a lucky intervention. Light leaks, color shift, all the alchemy of film’s noble ability to create great works from the mistake of light are present.

In his Paris work, Engstrom has edited his personal attachment to the city of light in a beautifully produced volume by Aperture. Within, we see the young JH finding his feet on the French pavement and graduating into the man he has become. Lovers, Friends, and the ambience of the city’s once strong bohemian hold-outs, all of which suffer from a gentrified change presently, find their way into this volume. The shift from post-war city to hyper-capital are clear. The Paris of our nostagias has changed into a city, much like London where the last vestiges of life under the radar are at odds with the city’s burgeoning excess and shift of community to that of the globalized metropolitan property market and tides of globalization. It is a powerful tome and a nice personal footnote in the trajectory of a still young and very potent photographer. I almost expect Engstrom to give up photography for drawing soon, he is that prodigious…..


BF: What is the bar in Bellville called? Some of these photos are definitely from that place.

JH: Some of the pictures are from a specific bar yes. It’s called Aux Follies. But nowadays that bar is not a place I visit like before. It was a fantastic place with a very warm atmosphere. More mixed, relaxed and spontaneous then it is now. Twenty years ago, when I photographed there, it was a much more a “local” bar. I went there every day and photographed in the middle of the nineties, often with a 4×5” camera, tripod and positive/negative Polaroid film, but also with other techniques. Now this place has become something totally different… But then a lot of pictures in the book are from other places in Paris, of course. There are many, many photographs from other bars, streets, hotels, apartments etc.

BF: I would suggest the city of Paris has changed quite dramatically over the years that you have been photographing it. Metropolitan cities seem to be heaving the last fundamental vestiges of culture off of their streets promoting a new terrain that counts homogeneity of lifestyle over that of artistic or bohemian living.

In effect, the creative force and underclass both…are driven out as global capitalistic impulses flood in in….tourism…high priced accommodation….creative marginalization…is this the case for you…and your perception of Paris now?

JH: Of course what you are listing above is happening. What you are mentioning might be the tendency, but the streets are still boiling in a lot of places in Paris and in a wonderful, mixed and cosmopolitan way, compared to New York or even worse; Scandinavian cities like Stockholm or Oslo. In those places that change has such a tremendous speed. I’m still completely able to lose myself in Paris with all kinds of people. And it’s still possible to sleep at really cheap hotels when I want to.


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“If there is any mourning it is more the general passage of time I guess. This is always melancholic to me. The time in itself ,but also my time passing on this planet, more than the particular transformation of Paris in itself, maybe….. Photography can always be haunting to me in that way, because I keep a record.”


I was in New York a couple of years after 9/11. I sat in a bar and started to talk with the guy next to me. He was a New Yorker from birth. He asked me about my history in the city. I told him I lived there for two years just before 9/11 and that I had a hard time now with all the changes after the terrorist attack and other changes the city went through. I told him all the changes made me sad and that I did not really want to move back and live there now. He sighed and said it was so obvious that I was not a New Yorker. He said every New Yorker knows that the actual definition of New York is change. I mean of course things are changing all of the time, but it’s also true that I don’t like it when things get too homogeneous. And I actually don’t think it is good for anyone. I think a mix of people is more dynamic and positive on a lot of levels.

BF: How do you stay in love with a city like Paris under the duress of transformation? Do the memories of life before become haunting in a way…..faces of people that have died….bodies intertwined on mattresses now buried in dumps? Did the making of Paris Sketchbook leave you with a sense of completion…or did it somehow feel like a mourning diary?

JH: I’m still in love with Paris. But then we are not in the beginning of our relationship, so I might look at it with more nuances than before. My relationship with Paris started when I was a kid and moved here from the Swedish countryside. I think we will stay inseparable and we will have to relate, Paris and I. It is like your parents a bit. You don’t get to choose them.

If there is any mourning it is more the general passage of time I guess. This is always melancholic to me. The time in itself , but also my time passing on this planet, more than the particular transformation of Paris in itself, maybe. But it happens on different levels simultaneously. Photography can always be haunting to me in that way, because I keep a record.

I mean, its part of the game to live through and accept these changes and the time passing. And it’s also true that it is sometimes something that occupies my brain and heart. But what can I really do about it? And like I said, I still have fantastic encounters in the city and still just love to watch the people in the streets of Paris. I also think there is a love that has to do with the banal and the everyday life in a big city like Paris. There are moments when I’m very touched and moved by humanity when I observe the everyday life and the everyday situations and the details that are played up in front of my eyes. I’m obsessed by these kind of things I guess. I believe Sketch of Paris to me is a kind of homage to the everyday life in a big city.

What I personally liked with the process of putting the book Sketch of Paris together is that the photographs where never made with the ambition to be a book about Paris. These photographs came out of necessity to formulate myself photographically on an everyday kind of basis and out of my obsession with life and details in the city. They were, almost all of them, in my negative archive already when I made the decision to actually do a book with Paris as the frame.

BF: The work in sketchbook has a very specifically photographic feel…as does much of your work…it is somehow diaristic…and somehow…a tradition that feels very French…I’m thinking of images of Clichy in the 50’s or images by Cartier-Bresson…a little boy carrying wine back to his mama….does this work feel specifically geo-situated to Paris for you? Could you have made this anywhere?

JH: I believe a common cliché the last decades has been to dismiss or define something as a cliché. A very….“photographic” feel…? That seems normal to me since my expression is photography, no? I use a diaristic method. I use my life and what I’m living to tell my stories. And since my tool of expression is photography, they become photographic stories. I would say my work is driven by what I see and the belief that what I see daily is true to me. I believe that I use an autobiographical method rather than actually having an urge to tell the reader precisely about my life. I’m not interested in saying: “First I did that, then I did that etc etc… What interests me is to find a language that is in contact with my personal and private emotional response to what surrounds me. And what surrounds me in my life is constantly changing, at least up until now. I would not say it is geo-situated. I would say its JH-situated.

I did this work because the city of Paris has been a very important and big part of my personal and private life. That’s also why I did the book about Charles de Gaulle airport, for example. (CDG/JHE, Steidl, 2008) Because my long relationship with that airport. I would not have done that book about Heathrow. Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do work on a place you don’t know…. I’m just trying to explain my methods of working in these cases.


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BF: Again, Could you make a similar sketchbook in a different city or is this quite specific to Paris?

JH: I could do another book on another city, but not in the way the Paris book happened. I actually have done a different city. La Residence (Journal, 2010) was about my Residency stay in Brussels.

Paris is part of my universe. I know it very well, at least many parts of it. I’ve Been walking alot. I spend alot of time in cafes and bars and bistros and Pmu’s and I have a very strong relationship with the city and its people. I understand the way people move and talk in the street. Paris was my introduction to the big world as a kid. And that’s also when I learned French, which of course helps if you want to get to know that city.

BF: Can you give me one very life-affirming story about making a picture or a series of pictures in the book? Perhaps something that felt absolutely part of your nature or awakened something new in either your personal psyche or photographic approach?

JH: These kind of stories happened all the time there for me… It’s impossible to pick just one. I mean, the way I use the camera often puts me in those situations. And I always question and reflect upon photographic approaches.

BF: Now, I want you to do the same with a difficult story. It could be the passing of a lover, a friend, or simply a day where picking up that fucking camera and committing to film a moment left you uncomfortable….you may also tell me to go fuck myself for asking this…and it would be fair…

JH: Difficult stories also happened, of course. The book span over 20 years of life… so…

BF: Ill take that as a “go fuck myself”..hahahaha



Sketch of Paris


Tags: JHEngstrom, Engstrom, Parissketchbook, Aperture, Aperturebooks, Paris, mourningdiary, auxfollies,

(All rights reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ JH Engstrom.)

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