I looked extensively at the work of J H Engstrom during the production of my two ‘Between The When And The Why’ projects last semester, and , though the work I’m now editing and combining for final submission in this identity module is focused on images shot over a very short period and are of a single subject, I think a great deal about Engstroms approach could be very relevant to my own practice.
In Engstroms case, he shoots widely and prolifically, he himself uses the word ‘intuitively’, and only much later does he edit and combine images, usually in the form of a book, that are in some way personally connected and relevant to a theme , often not at all manifest at the time of shooting. He says he is approaching photography existentially, shooting images that are personal but that do not convey much if anything about himself. His photography seems to give visual form to existential states. Without focusing on one specific theme, he collects impressions in all possible styles – impressions that correspond to his emotions, in effect exploring what existence is.
He has said:
‘Mainly, I want to avoid formalistic limitations. But I guess being eclectic is a sort of style too, so I can’t really say that. I couldn’t care less about what is considered a good photograph; I no longer think in terms of “good” or “bad,” I just let the camera tell stories. To me there’s no hierarchical order when it comes to these different aesthetics, because using different techniques is required for what I’m trying to do; I want to be in all these different worlds. What interests me at the moment is carrying out, putting together and presenting my work.’
‘most of my work is personal, but without being directly revealing. I formulate myself photographically about my surroundings, but I don’t think anyone can tell anything about who I am and how I live from looking at my work.’
All Images from ‘Haunts’ 2006
The following interview is not credited to an individual interviewer, but was conducted by Leica when Engstom won the 2015 Leica Oskar Barnack award.
Q: Do you plan to take pictures in advance or do you always have a camera on hand to catch the chance moment?
A: I most often have a camera on hand. I work both with primitive and intuitive shooting, and more planned shooting and the whole range in between. There is absolutely no hierarchy within that range. To only work with one method would be too simplistic and it would bore me as well. The way I prepare myself is by trying to catch the energies within me that are in connection with my inner conflicts, doubts, fears, contradictions, questions or the pure joy of existing.
Q: Where do you find your motifs?
A: You can photograph everything. It’s about how you do it. Everything can be a mystery, so I don’t have to go to special places. When I was younger I had the urge to go somewhere. Now I can see the images everywhere.
Q: Do you have a connection with any other art forms?
A: Of course! All forms of art have influenced me as much as photography. I love human expressions. Whatever tool is used is not important to me. When it speaks to me, it speaks to me and that could be any form of art.
Q: Please describe your visual approach to the topics photographed. Do you have a method, a certain way of developing your visual language? Does it change?
A: It’s impossible to describe my approach in a short answer here. But if you insist I would use the word “intuitive”. My method is also to have many different methods and the way I develop is by doing, failing, doubting, and constantly questioning my self and my work. And sometimes, rarely, there is also some kind of flow when I work. I do hope there is a constant change. Otherwise I would become quite worried and also bored.
Q: You make use of many different styles for your work – eclectic, one would say. Playfulness seems like a common thread running though the pictures.
A: I don’t prefer one stylistic element over another. Everything depends on what you are trying to express and why. I use colour, black-and-white, sharpness, blur, natural light, large-format, disposable cameras, 8 mm cameras, Polaroids, medium-format, 135 mm … everything possible.
Q: Your very comprehensive work is made up of individual pictures that you have not kept in chronological order. By combining the motifs without reference to time or place, you create new contexts. It is easy to recognize the influence film has on you.
A: Well, film also deals with images. I personally always liked and believed in photography that on a deeper level deals with the serial in its nature. And that is definitely a link to film as you mention. It also comes down to my interest in storytelling and how series and combinations of images create stories. These stories can of course be more or less concrete or abstract. Rhythm in and between images also interests me. I work a lot with photo books as a way of expression, and I believe the photo book is linked to both the medium of film and the written short story.
Q: Editing a series together can really sap one’s energy. How did Tout Va Bien come about?
A: I composed the Tout Va Bien series over several years. It has been a long and windy road. It’s like that with most of my books. I think I have something like 15 dummy versions of Tout Va Bien in my studio that have been reworked and rejected. But now the final version is printed and the cards are laid out on the table. I can’t take them back now and that is wonderful. The work is done.
I absolutely love this attitude and approach, and, the more images I take, the more I feel I would like to adopt something similar. I’ve shot to brief for SO long that to consciously avoid that and merely free myself up to shoot in effect fairly randomly , but as a response to some indefinable trigger, and then to recognise and somehow filter what I’ve found sounds both exciting and liberating.
There is a video presentation of Engstoms ‘Haunts’ book on Vimeo, which unfortunately will not load into this blog post, but I strongly recommend readers search it out.