Running through the meditations of time and place is a tight line of fear. The fear of the father is the death of his children. Maybe not ‘I’m not done yet’ but, ‘please don’t let me be done yet.’
This Is Where I’m From: An interview with JH Engström by Catherine Anyango
Settled between the forest, fields, and lakes I watch my children grow up here.
Time and doubt are my most precious tools. Thinking of truth as submissive to both silence and language.
I realize my photographs are my shelter, more than anything.
It’s later now.
Tout va Bien, JH Engströms fifteenth photobook, published by Aperture, revisits the territory of his home, assessing it’s fit for purpose and concluding that, for better or worse, this is where he is from. The images do not invite specific readings. Rather, they are a survey of time and space. There is a sealed, domestic sense of place, a turning away from the public. Only two photographs point outwards, tellingly, a tattered EU flag and a mauled teenage arm. Previous questions of urban urgency have given way to the urgent domestic, blood and viscera, the process of birth.
Engström is attuned to how there can be the extraordinary in the mundane, it’s in the bounty implied in children and plates of food, a hand turning, photographed under that gaze of what (I imagine) it is like to be drunk or high, the wonder of life, your own body, time and connectedness. Is this my hand? Wow! (Later: is this my dick?? wow!)
Moments of apparent despair are contrasted with moments of clarity, visually and conceptually. Surely this is how life actually is? Not epic, but sometimes calm, and sometimes sad. Time here is a quiet and mundane entity as well as a geological one. There is a contrast between long time, rocks in landscapes, and short time: a plate of cheese. Babies and rocks have in common the phenomenon of long time, babies pointing forward, rocks pointing back. Together they show that we were both here and not here. Landscape exists outside human scale, but because we can photograph it, it belongs to us too.
Time is evident in all the photos – paint leaching down a wall, a journey through space, through a door, with a greener space to come. We see a man chopping wood, and later the ax rests on the block. The tone is dim, but the mood not so much. Time is evident but not bleak, it is somehow purposeful. Photography can tend towards the melancholy, time as entropy – and it is perfectly suited to do so – but here time slides upwards, not downwards. Even moody pictures of ultrasounds point to a future, though an elderly figure appears and reappears, a reminder of the presence of death. A blurred figure also reappears: Engström calls him the ghost. If there is melancholy it is a sadness that cannot be escaped from in life, but one can be lived with and can even be beautiful.
A blurred figure also reappears: Engström calls him the ghost. If there is melancholy it is a sadness that cannot be escaped from in life, but one can be lived with and can even be beautiful.
Engström writes on the back of the book: Doubt is a precious tool. The book begins with a mirror, and then another mirror, neither of which reflect anything at all. We look different in mirrors than we do in photographs and even in real life. When we see ourselves in photographs there is a new eye telling us what we look like, different from the mirror eye. Doubt in these pictures is looking at faces through broken and faulty windows, people obscured by artifacts or smudges or just thoroughly blurred. We always look through a scrim, whether a physical mesh or just depth of field. Photography is used here with a sensation of camera – only the camera can record the light coming off a mirror, or blur a figure in a landscape, or peel away the corner of a picture so that it does not reach its own edges.
Just holding the book recalls Robert Frank, the cover could be an updated version of Frank’s ‘The Lines of My Hand’. There is a shared resonance of family: both artists watch their children grow up with fascination. But Frank’s children died. Engström still invites others into the family, even our own selves, though only through mirrors or surfaces in which we are obliquely reflected. His mirrors emit light rather than reflect it. Frank’s mirrors suck all the light in, or reflect nothing. His windows only look out at a landscape on which he has given up, which in his own words is ‘gone forever.’ The Lines of my Hand is a closed chapter, but Engström’s biography in Tout Va Bien is an ongoing one. Rilke, to his wife, wrote ‘surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further.’ Frank, sadly, was mapping endings, perhaps in an attempt to find some meaning in terrible events. Engström is documenting beginnings, which carry their own internal meanings, which are about potential. Engström looks backwards but forwards too. Tout va bien – Everything is all right. Here and now, in the present tense. Not: tout se passera bien, everything will be all right. Not: Frank’s tout etait bien, everything was all right. The mirror obscures the hand, obscures the autobiography, as if to say, ‘I’m not done yet.’ But the images frequently come in pairs – two placenta, two babies, two grown ups, two parents, two dead rats. Running through the meditations of time and place is a tight line of fear. The fear of the father is the death of his children. Maybe not ‘I’m not done yet’ but, ‘please don’t let me be done yet.’
CA The images keep returning to the theme of origins – birth, children, your country. There is some nostalgia but also some atypical structures and scenes in typically Swedish landscapes. The photograph that says ‘this is where I’m from’ does not point to any place in particular, but sits amongst many pictures of place. I would be really interested to know where you feel situated – when you say photographs are your shelter, is this what you mean?
JH Where I feel situated…? Yes, that is also a very good question. But then maybe being from somewhere does not necessarily mean a specific place. I guess I’m situated at different places all the time. I mean maybe it is more a mental thing than anything else. But it could also of course be a specific place. As always it depends on who is reading the image.
CA:The book makes me think of John Berger when he wrote that ‘memory is a field where different times coexist’. Can you talk a little bit about the range of visual approaches to image making?
JH: I don’t think it is only in memory and in time existence coexist…. When I look at the world it seems quite absurd to me.
With this I mean that there is no way to really understand it. Saying this I don’t necessarily mean absurd in a negative way.
CA: What I mean is, there are just so many kinds of image, to the point where some appear found, or from a different time. Is this intentional, or a by product of the coexistence of many things?
JH: They are found in a way. Inside of me and outside of me.
When trying to formulate myself visually, this is what I found and chose to put together.
And I’m not really sure of what you mean “from another time”… How does an image from “this time” look to you?
But I do believe this wide range of images is a product of the fact that I see what is around me in a quite eclectic way. And to me my work is also very strongly linked with my emotions and the different energies I feel. Maybe even more different than anything else.
CA: The landscapes seem to go between being observational, contemplative, a little bit reverent or appreciative, and then more abstract and subjective. Could you tell me a little bit about your approach to nature?
JH: There have been many things said about “nature”. It’s there. It is touched by humans or it is not touched by humans. Mostly touched by us though. And at the base we are also part of this nature. My approach to nature is that I know I relate to it, in all its forms. But if by “nature” you mean opposite to populated areas I like spending time in nature because it gives me time to think and to have more time and space without being distracted by signs from human structures to much. And I also think I relate to everything around me in all those different forms you mention above. Like I said before. It coexists.
CA: To go back to absurdity, Camus, just after WW2 spoke about the world in this way:
“a world that can be described by reasoning, however faulty, is a familiar world. But in a universe suddenly deprived of illusions and light, man feels a stranger. His is an irredeemable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. The divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of absurdity.’
JH: It’s true that a book that made a big impression on me when i was young is Camus The myth of Sisyphus. But I’m not a philosopher. I make images. What he wrote he wrote a while ago but I would say it goes for these times as well.
“There is fear and fragility in this series. Often when people refer to my work they talk about roughness but to me my work has always had elements of fragility as a big part of the expression”
CA: You say that at base we are part of nature, which we are, but you are distracted by human structures in it. As humans we can comprehend (and struggle with this comprehension) of ourselves as being both part of and outside of nature. Is the absurd for you not the divorce between man and his setting, but in the reconciliation?
JH: That is a good question. Both I guess. Absurd is absurd. Which per definition makes it difficult here in one sentence to answer what absurd means or not means to me really. When it comes to being distracted I also love being distracted by human structures and humans. I’m just saying that living here in the countryside gives me some space and time to concentrate and maybe therefore get other results in my work. But I also spend a lot of time in Paris and I need that as well.
CA: On that note, there is a human presence in your landscape photographs in the very fact that they exist as photographs. But the landscapes seem to exist on a geological scale as well as a human scale, removed from relying on human agency to exist. Are you interested in time in both a macro and micro sense in this book?
JH: Yes. But not only in this book. What you mention in your question is something that I find intriguing. And I’m interested in macro and micro regarding other things than time as well. I’m also interested in centre and periphery. On the macro level maybe the centre is not what we consider the centre often to be, like the big metropolises in the world. Maybe it could be a isolated cottage on the top of a mountain…and on a micro level I guess I simply mean how we as individuals chose to relate to the person next to us in our daily lives.
CA: When I talk about different times, I mean that the images of birth are very pulsing and urgent, very contemporary, whereas some images are more timeless. The contrast of the romantic and the visceral gives me a sense of fear, or fragility. You say your work is an expression of emotions and energies – are these emotions that you feel in this collection?
JH: Yes, there is fear and fragility in this series. Often when people refer to my work they talk about roughness but to me my work has always had elements of fragility as a big part of the expression. And I believe the shifts in energy here might create a sense of uncertainty which I appreciate.
“I just guess that expressing my self is a shelter. To have this privilege is like the privilege of having a home.”
CA: You write ‘It’s later now’ on the back of the book. There’s a man chopping wood, and later the ax rests on the block. What are your thoughts on time and narrative in the collection?
JH: In the book there is no chronological time what so ever but there is of course a sort of narrative. This does not mean the dramaturgy goes from A to Z.
But referring again to your first question; both time and space coexist on different levels in the way it is put together.
CA: Can you tell me more about the pages where a blurred figure is contrasted with a black and white landscape?
JH: Not really. I mean that’s the way I put it together. You know, I have a hard time “explaining” my work in that way. Sorry.
CA: No problem! But do the meanings that may arise from editing matter to you?
JH: My work is very much about editing. So of course it matters to me a lot. But then I don’t like imposing on the reader what they should, or should not, see when they look at my work
CA: The blurred figure interacts with his environment in a very different way to the other inhabitants of your photographs. Can you tell me about him?
JH: Same here. I don’t really want to tell anything about “him” This figure is there though out the book obviously and I guess the figure will get different meaning depending on who is reading the book.
CA: I think that a reciprocity with the viewer is really important when looking at work. We should have unexplained space to enter into the photographs. Have you ever had an extremely funny or touching response to one of your images?
JH: I have had many different responses. And some of them are touching, yes.
CA: The cover has echoes of Robert Frank’s The Lines of My Hand. In your pictures I have a sensation of calm, of coming to terms with things, with melancholy being all right – as you say, with the possibility of an absurdity that is not negative. Do you feel that actually, everything is just all right for once?
JH: There are many references in your questions… I don’t know… Robert Frank is Robert Frank. I’m JH Engström. I don’t know if I have come to terms with things. I know that I have three kids now though and I also know that if I want to take on the responsibility that goes with that I have to lead another life than I did before. I mean, things change and I also believe in letting my work follow those changes. But Robert Frank is a person and artist I appreciate a lot and when I lived in New York I sometimes went to see him at Bleecker Street and showed my work. He has always supported me and encouraged me. He also wrote a text on the back of my first book Shelter. I visited him in Nova Scotia once and the landscape up there in Canada is really impressive. I liked it a lot. On the question if everything is ok for once? I think it would be a mistake to put it that way but at the moment I’m very happy being privileged to do what I do though. But again: one of the things that drive me is the doubt on what I’m doing. I always try to find new ways to express myself.
CA:As Tranströmer writes:
Two truths draw nearer each other/ One moves from inside, one moves from outside/
And where they meet we have a chance/ to see ourselves.
JH: I also love the poems of Tranströmer…
CA: The photographs go between a close, personal domestic interior to more epic, contemplative exteriors. Can you say some more about this? You speak of being settled between trees and lakes. But they are not shelters, the shelter is in the photographs. Real truth, as you say, is so difficult to articulate – it often comes to us in the contemplation and immersion into the real world. Are photographs the place where the two truths meet, the big world and the small world?
JH: I just guess that expressing my self is a shelter. To have this privilege is like the privilege of having a home. To me this universe of images that I have inside me, and sometimes on paper, is a universe that is very precious to me. I guess it is actually my freedom.
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(All rights reserved. Text @ Catherine Anyango. Images @ JH Engström.)