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’.)