JH Engström – Revoir

  • Photography  JH Engström
  • Words  Anna Sanders

There is something familiar: that curve of breast; lips parted; a used bed, a bed in use. We have been here before.

Washed-out colours, faded like memories and shrouded in dust, are punctuated by vivid shades, solarised and strange. A jarring staccato in celluloid; a flashback – if JH Engström’s narrative is a disjointed, dream-like one, these moments are the lucid recollections of something once forgotten.

Revoir, JH Engström’s latest tome, is released today following a talk and signing at the Foundation Henri Cartier Bresson in Paris.

A flashback to a period between the mid 90’s and 00’s that also marked his former publication, Trying To Dance, this revisiting of memories sixteen years later is a new edit from those same negatives. Roughly two-thirds of the images have never been published or publicly seen – this archive of unknown, nostalgic work now set amongst the familiar faces of his past.

Revoir: the name itself evokes the French farewell – until we meet again. The verb voir, ‘to see’, once pre-fixed becomes endless, it’s meaning on loop; the eternal return of seeing. This act of reviewing is a common trope in Engström’s work; through his imagery we travel from Värmland to Paris in pilgrimage of his past, we revisit old friends who never age in the pages of his books – as much family albums as they are documentary in their tender nostalgia.

His work confronts and challenges, finding as much beauty now in burnt embers and fresh blood as he did in the trees and bushes behind his house when he first began to photograph. Captured moments are raw, intimate; a vulnerability in nudes, a knowingness in an accidental still life – tableauxs of the morning after the night before that betray highs and lows, the incidental markers of a life lived. We recognise his images because we recognise life: we know stillness and sex and desolate streets. We know the lives that have been lived, and will be lived again. Universal and enigmatic, his images defy explanation as they need none. Life is not linear and neat: it is a fragmented collection of half remembered thoughts; of memorable moments, dog-eared in your mind as pages in a book; it is the act of recollecting and remembering.

On the act of revisiting this visual period of his life for Revoir, Engström remarked: “I still feel that these negatives are a very big part of me. Maybe even more now with time. There was also another scary parameter included: memories. And memories are a very complex thing. They tend to fuck your mind up quite dramatically, and it is not always pleasant.”

Though we may recognise images, in certain layouts and from a certain time, they are not truly known to us. An ambiguity that allows for new narratives to be explored; new alternatives to be offered following the betrayal of knowledge time leaves in its wake. After sixteen years, Engström feels differently towards them – and we also.

When revisiting the negatives for Trying To Dance, the time and distance between Engstrom and his former project created a palpable change: “When I had made the decision to really dive back into these negatives… it was a very lustful experience to find images I did not publish the first time around. I also found a lot of new combinations. It was a very dynamic process and I enjoyed it a lot. I realised that those binders of negatives contained a lot of energy. A lot of playing and a lot of searching. The main difference from when I published Trying To Dance, is that sixteen years had passed since I had even looked at those negatives.”

Engström collaborated with the same team for both projects, a decision he said happened naturally for all involved. Christian Caujolle in his introduction to the book remarks: “I write this text because JH asked me to, and because this book – the new version of an object that more than satisfied me the first time around – is his book”. An explanation of enduring affection that follows his admission to writing a foreword for a book he hasn’t yet seen. A conscious decision, his beautifully worded tribute instead reflects upon their personal relationship, recalling how he was drawn to Engström’s images from their first meeting in Paris, yet could not, and does not want to, understand them. Inherently known, he effortlessly describes the subjects we will see, and the ethereal quality to Engström’s work that has come to aesthetically define it, concluding – “I am now waiting for the new book. I hope it will make no sense to me… that mystery will prevail.”

Mystery remains a familiar, unparalleled offering of analogue; with its physicality and chemicals and unique relationship with light, it can offer more of the unknown, more excitement and experimentation than with digital. “I love the accidents which help you in analogue.” Engström notes of its delicate, careful nature. “All the images in Trying To Dance and Revoir are large format negatives. This was a decision I took when I first started to photograph for Trying to Dance. I wanted the slow process you are forced into when you work with these 4×5 negative sheets and Polaroid positive/negative technique (for the black and white). I decided I wanted to use this slow technique with less respect – the large format makes you slow down, because you are forced to, but it also tends to make every time you press the shutter more, how can I say, more careful, more anxious. I was looking for the mental freedom of a point and shoot camera, but using this slow large format process.”

This conceit of the precious precariously handled is reflected throughout, through close-cropped framing and burnt out whites, the unflinching documentation of the banal against the extraordinary, through his preservation of a beautifully flawed life: the imperfect quietly celebrated.

Exclusively below, we share images from Revoir (Journal / Akio Nagasawa, 2016), edited for PYLOT by JH Engström.

JH Engström will be holding a talk and signing of his book at the Foundation Henri Cartier Bresson in Paris, 20/10 at 18.30; and at the Photographers Gallery in London, 3/11 at 18.00.

JH Engström spoke to Cheryl Newman about his life’s work in PYLOT 05 – The Excess Issue: pre-order your copy here.

Images © JH Engström