An interview with JH Engström on the occasion of his visit to Greece for leading a workshop.
Yannis Karpouzis talked with JH Engström about latter’s work and his views on the medium, about memory and various means of expression.
Mr Engström, I want to start this discussion with referring to your workshop at Palm Tree Workshop Space on the island of Santorini, organised by art foto mode, in early October 2020. Could you share with us the focus and content of this workshop?
Thanks. We met at this fantastic place on the island of Santorini and spent five intense days together in which we tried to make things that we did not know we were capable of. The participants acted experimentally and tried out things in new ways. They found new means and methods to express what they had the urgency to express.
As you have a broad perception of diverse fields and a sound knowledge of art and poetics − and by ‘poetics’ I mean the ‘hardware’ of the creative act − do you think that what we would call a general education, reading, and awareness are a necessity for an artist?
Yes. All the knowledge you can get your hands on is good if you want to be an artist. But then, I’m not only talking about academic knowledge, of course.
In an interview (for the Leica Oscar Barnack award) you say that “things happen when we look at things, and what really happens is not always sure to say”. Is this close to what Garry Winogrand perceived about the world being a stage and the photographer being its only viewer?
What I meant is that visual perception is a very complex thing. And I don’t believe in theories to explain its mechanisms. But no, I don’t see the world as a stage. I see the world as ungraspable. To say it is a stage would be to simplify it, I think.
Your art was considered avant-garde, and maybe a bit unorthodox, twenty years back (thinking of your book Trying to Dance). Nowadays, I could argue that your way of editing, making books, and taking photographs has set a major paradigm that has influenced many of my generation. Do you think that the Leica Oscar Barnack award for your beautiful work tout va bien pushed your approach into the new art photography ‘canon’?
I don’t know. I’m not sure I look at it that way. To me, it is important to continue working with what I have the need to express and to surprise myself while doing it. But it is also true that when I looked for publishers for the book Trying to Dance, they all said they liked it but that it was impossible to mix b/w and colour in the same book. This now seems unbelievable. But it happened just sixteen years ago.
Your connection to the legendary photographer Anders Petersen is well-known. But, fortunately, you are an artist that, despite assimilating his tutor’s teaching, he also built his own unique and intriguing visual language. This is very hard to happen as it is common that a tutor’s teaching can stifle a young artist’s vision. What do you think?
What Andres taught was not that I should photograph like him. What he taught me was to try to be myself. To have the courage to go my own way.
Something that frightens me with regard to the art of photography is the overabundance of images that characterises the digital age. Through this ‘flood’ of images, I feel that the subtlety, craftmanship, sophistication, and the unique beauty that was associated with photography are now fading away. Do you agree?
I think good work will always be around. And I think that, for sure, the digital age has changed things. But I also believe that the conditions for art-making have always been subject to change.
The situation across Europe and all over the world is turning towards a new conservatism that supports the huge economic gaps dividing social classes. As an artist, are you concerned about these issues? Do they affect you? Do you think that artists ought to care about the political situation of their times?
I don’t think that an artist “should” or “have to” do whatever. What I see happening in the world could be of any level, or involve any issue, and it, of course, affects me one way or another. We are all children of our time.
You write that “Time and doubt are my most valuable tools”. This is a very beautiful sentence. Would you mind analysing it a bit?
I prefer not to. Sorry. It’s all there, in that sentence.
Another well-known fact is your passion with the beloved film compact camera “contax T3” but also the medial diversity of your images. Is the camera model important for us as photographers, for building our own language and visual system?
For me, it is important that the camera suits what I want to express. I want to put the least energy possible in thinking of what camera I use.
After years in the field, do you take pictures of/about your life? Photos that are not necessarily to be placed in a project but pictures of friends, bars, taverns, trips and family that have no professional value; pictures taken for your memory.
I photograph daily. I don’t make that kind of distinction. The pictures you are referring to are the ones that very often end up in my work.
There is an exciting short super8 film that you’ve made called “Here” that reminds me of the renowned work “Dog-Star-Man” by Stan Brackhage. It is amazing how much knowledge and information we take from a five-minute long silent movie. Why do films give us so much interpretation when photographs are really dark, obscure, and content shifting?
Not sure if I agree with you on that. But film and photography are both similar and different. I think photography gives us very much interpretation, for example.
JH Engström΄s workshop is a result of the second collaboration between Marilena Stafylidou, co founder of The Palm Tree Workshops Space and Michael Grieve, founder of Art Foto Mode International Workshops.
The Palm Tree Workshops Space is a cultural center operating in Santorini whose aim is to gather up creative people from all aspects of art and science. It organizes and hosts seminars, workshops, speeches, lectures and also presentations of distinguished artists and personas in photography/visual arts, such as photographers, curators, editors, festival directors etc.
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