Wednesday, 23 March 2011

National Media Museum – ‘JH Engström – In Conversation’

Yesterday, with a Group from the OCA, I attended this event at the National Media Museum.  JH Engström, whose joint exhibition with Anders Petersen ‘From Back Home’ I have commented on elsewhere (here) was talking to the NMM’s Greg Hobson, and showing his film about Anders Petersen, as well as presenting a slideshow of his latest work.  Petersen was also due to be there but is ill and had been advised not to travel.
The event was well-attended, and the conversation lasted perhaps 45-50 minutes, followed by the film, which was also around 50 minutes, and then 15 minutes or so of questions.  The OCA group followed up with c30mins discussion in the NMM cafe.  Engström didn’t seem to be an easy and natural communicator, often looking downwards and failing to make eye contact with his interviewer, but at the same time, he came across as an open individual, willing to open up (as far as he could) about himself, his work, and Petersen.  I wrote quite a few notes during the discussion, from which I draw the following observations:
·         Engström’s work is essentially autobiographical and intensely personal.  He is “always doubting, questioning and soul-searching”.  He says that he “looks for presence” in his work, but that the doubt returns whenever he gets close.
·         The notion of ‘closeness’ came up frequently, meaning, I think, closeness to people.  I wonder whether, to an extent, he envies Petersen’s ability to get close to people – but then that is always likely to be a challenge for someone so deeply bound up in his own doubts and questioning as Engström seems to be.
·         There is a restlessness about the style of Engström’s work, perhaps reflecting the constant questions and doubts, and it came across strongly in the slideshow of his recent work (a narrative based around the love story with his wife/partner and the birth of their children).
§  The mixing of colour and black and white within a sequence;
§  The mixing of formats, from 4x5 on a tripod to disposable cameras;
§  The mixing of clear images with blurred, out-of-focus;
§  The deliberate use of over-exposure (though he says that this idea, which started as a mistake but was then used deliberately, is no longer a surprise, so he doesn’t use it anymore).
·         He says that photography is a language; it isn’t life (and I’m sure Petersen said more or less the opposite in the film!).  He tries to give the photograph some presence, but then realises it’s just a piece of paper.  Clearly he is never satisfied with his work; always, it seems, grappling with the medium and with his own feelings & concerns – but always seeking to challenge the viewer, as well, I would suggest.
There is a temptation, I must admit, to say ‘get over it’; life is for living; stop being so intense and get on with it.  Yet, from the first time I saw his part of the ‘From Back Home’ exhibition back in January something attracted me to it, even though it is a style that doesn’t usually appeal.  I think there is an honesty about it – back to his willingness to be ‘open’, to put himself out there – and an energy that consumes you, if you let it.
His film about Petersen was similar in style – restless, broken narrative, etc – but it was different in one way – in that it was definitely about his friend and mentor and not so autobiographical as his other work.  I think it was Gareth, in the discussion afterwards, who referred to Petersen as something of a performer, and I think there was definitely some of that going on.  We also saw him ‘performing’ with his photographic subjects – drawing something out of them by the way he handles them, by the way he gets ‘close to them’.  Engström and Petersen are clearly very close friends – Petersen as the ‘father figure’ (and Engström referring back to some issues with his actual father, and with the move to Paris when he was very young, and the unsettling effect it had on him, and the notion that it is the source of his art ... and more doubting/questioning ...) – but they are also very different.  That difference is another of the attractions of the combined exhibition, of course.  What a pity that Petersen couldn’t have been present yesterday!
(Random meanderings, these, but they are my honest reflections on yesterday.  Thankyou Alan & Gareth for organising – looking forward to seeing the video on ‘We are OCA’.)


  1. I enjoyed your write up Stan; perceptive. I wonder if you're 'reading into' your own work in a similar way? It could expand your idea of what you are about in your image making. ' }

  2. Phew, that's quite a challenging question, Clive! The short answer would be 'No', backed up by a the view that I tend not to be particularly introspective (thoughtful, but not introspective), and the (smug?) notion that I probably know myself quite well by now, so don't spend too much time exploring the depths.

    Should I? I really don't know; I'll think about it (but maybe not for long :-)?).

  3. 'I think there is an honesty about it – back to his willingness to be ‘open’, to put himself out there' I quite agree Stan and this makes me appreciate his work all the more having heard Engstrom talk about it, and (dare I say it in public?) almost glad Petersen wasn't there - it gave the space to Engstrom to get his thoughts across

  4. Well I think you should always be thinking about why you're doing it, except when you're doing it, as part of your self reflection.

    Jose pointed me to a page from a book,De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, Chapter VIII, which suggested to me a way to express a further refining approximation of why I do it, which went something along the lines of...

    'I'm counting, one, two, three of them, the edges are vertical, the plane slopes away, he's over there, the bird is here; I'm triangulating me, him, the bird. How am I to them? The woman looks away to the spire. Is it now? Am I in balance, am I ordered? What does it mean?'

    So why people eating? As you see it doesn't have to make formal sense! Hahahahaha

  5. Clive, I certainly wouldn't disagree on the 'thinking about why you're doing it' aspect and I did look at the 'Why people eating?' question here in my blog - 3rd March post The 'no' in my response to your question reflected the fact that I wouldn't necessarily then ask myself 'What is it about me that makes me want to take pictures of people eating?', which I guess is the sort of analysis I was applying to Engstrom. I could probably answer the question, but I don't know how useful it would be at this stage. I do of course always have Barthes in my mind when out taking pictures. Something along the lines of 'how nice it is to be out taking pictures instead of reading photography theory'.

  6. Hahahaha Well I'm sure he would have found it most instructive to go photographing with you, as long as you followed the Green Cross Code.

    '...but I don't know how useful it would be at this stage.'

    You make a good point and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to every student off the bat, they have enough to contend with.

    What does rather concern me though, and one of the reasons that I made the point, is that one can develop quite a sophisticated view on other photographers, and their work, to the point where it retards one's own thinking and work, or even becomes a substitute for it.

    I think you can overdose on it. I believe it should be treated homeopathically. ' }

  7. Clive, I will take your sound advice - again - thankyou. (I'm busy trying to whittle a long list of c20 pictures for Assignment Two down to c10. That should keep me out of mischief for a while. Actually - partly acting, again, on your sound advice - I'm going to print them to help make a final choice.)