This Week In Photography Books – JH Engström

by Jonathan Blaustein

Journalists tell stories. They relay facts. (As much as anyone can agree on the definition of a fact in 2012.) Photojournalists, by extension, tell stories through pictures; they visually encode reality. This happened to that person, and it happened there. Bombings, oil spills, butter-eating contests, all are detailed in a matter-of-fact way.

Artists, by contrast, are trained to make it all about themselves. My vision, my opinions, my composition, my color palette. This is what I think, symbolized in pictures. If you like it, cool. If not, that’s fine too. (Well, that’s the ideal. The reality is probably more like this: “You don’t like my work? I hate you. You’re a bourgeois homophobe. Die.”)

Anyway, I’m musing because I spent the past weekend meeting with photographers and checking out portfolios in Santa Fe. Everyone wants to talk about audience and context these days. If I edit this way, I can can blow them up big and hang them on the wall. A different selection will be more appropriate for the magazine editors, and another still if I want to get commercial clients. Welcome back to the 21st Century Hustle.

I’m not sure how I feel about these developments, but they’re probably here to stay. Fewer employers + many more people searching for work = everybody jostling to stand out. My take is that it makes a personalized vision, with the self-awareness to bend that vision at times, all the more important. How much can I learn about a person through their photographs? Code, if you will.

This week’s book does it very well: “La Résidence,” by JH Engström, published by journal. I had a whole intro today about how I got stuck in Brussels for a few days on my honeymoon, but decided to save it for another time. We’ll stick to Mr. Engström’s anecdotes today. Mine will have to wait.

Here’s what you can learn about Mr. Engström from looking at this book. He got invited to do an Artist Residence in Brussels, and it required visits in 2003 and 2006. That much is explained in the intro. Come, Mr. Engström, visit our fair city, relax and find yourself, then make pictures that reflect your time here. Sounds pretty straightforward.

Look at the book, and you’ll quickly surmise that Mr. Engström was, (I don’t know about is,) likely a lonely alcoholic who quickly adapted to his new surroundings by seeking out the company of the coordination-challenged, “I love you, man”-type, 2 am bar crowds that are so easy to find everywhere. Everyone is your friend when they’ve had enough to drink. (Unless they want to shank you.)

As we turn page to page, we see a succession of haggard-looking Belgian sorts, smoking cigarettes, and trying not to fall off the bar stool. We also see lots of banal, artsy-type visions of random detritus and architectural randomness. They look like the photos you’d take if you had to take photos for a couple of months to justify your stipend, but didn’t really connect to any underlying elements of the culture. (Beyond the aforementioned bar culture, which is transnational.)

What takes the book further, though, is Mr. Engström’s inclusion of text. Poems, musings, and even a starkly honest paragraph about his relationship with his father. Some observations are obvious, others smart, but all make you feel like the artist is letting you into his head. The book becomes far more experiential for their inclusion. (Sample: “These pictures may be an account of my failure to depict photographically a place I didn’t go to for private reasons.”)

Additionally, most of the photos are only accessed by folding the pages out to triple-spreads. It’s laborious and a bit time-consuming, especially as you don’t want bend or ruin the pages when you refold. But the additional seconds enhance the banal-style photography; you feel the photographer’s boredom that this book reflects. (And some of the portrait spreads are amazing.)

I doubt all of you would enjoy this book. It might piss you off. But it’s a terrific example of an artist downloading his thoughts and personality into a bunch of pages, bound and wrapped in linen.

Bottom Line: Boozy in Brussels

To purchase “La Résidence” visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 5 Comments On This Article.

  1. Brian Welch

    It’s one thing to wonder about an artist’s thoughts and motivations by looking at his work, but isn’t a bit irresponsible to publicly speculate that Engström was “likely a lonely alcoholic”?

  2. Yes I also find the conclusion that J.H. Engström would be an lonely alcoholic a bit harsh and slightly romanticizing the Scandinavian photographer.
    I don’t care or know if he is an alcoholic but what I do know is that he is a great workshop teacher and a sensitive man.

    If you’d known his work from before you’d probably understand the reference to the environment and the lost introvert soles of where he stands. He is with them, and you can see that he cares. Enjoying alcohol, cars, sex, violence, dullness, is what anybody would do living in a small city.

    I don’t mean you hafto know someones work from before, but you should pay respect to someones work when you judge their book, and be more wise than calling names.