JH Engström started photographing the woods when he was 15, to express how beautiful he found them. Then, in his early 20s, he landed a job as Mario Testino's assistant in Paris and, upon moving back to Sweden, Anders Petersen (who in turn was mentored by Christer Strömholm) took him under his wing. Talk about photographic legacy, eh? JH is one of the rare photographers to actually spend years on his projects and putting his soul into each and every one of his award-winning, collectible books. His eye for detail, ability to capture a moment's emotions and eclectic use of photographic styles makes him responsible for some of the most interesting photography to ever come out of Sweden. PS. He has two new books coming out this fall.
Hello JH, how are you?
Good. I'm in Paris.
No, I have access to a studio here. I've been travelling back and forth between here and Varmland, the region in Sweden where I grew up, basically all my life. My dad got a job here when I was 10, so the whole family moved to Paris for three years.
That must have been quite the culture shock for a 10-year-old, to suddenly move from the Swedish countryside to a city like Paris.
Definitely. Those early years in Paris affected me a lot, on deep a level. There were so many new impressions and I had no one to share them with or talk to about them - I didn't really talk to my parents that much - so I built up a world of my own. I'm very affected by situations, so much that I sometimes wish there was some kind of protection.
Would you say those years have shaped you, and maybe even your photography?
I think so, yes. I think everyone is more or less preoccupied with where they come from. At least I am, a lot. To me it's almost an obsession. I guess already back then, as a child, I felt the need to formulate all these feelings and impressions from moving around so much between these two places. Their energies and extremities became very apparent to me. I guess those are the themes I return to in my photography.
You already returned to Varmland in the book From Back Home you did with Anders Petersen. Will you do a book about Paris too? Is that what you're working on now, seeing as you're in Paris and all?
Well, I ask myself the same question. Maybe... probably. I guess I'm trying to write. I don't know what will come out of it yet, but it revolves around my thoughts on photography and also Paris, this very big, absurd city.
Paris has such an extreme variety of cultures and classes in each and every neighbourhood, and so many things are going on simultaneously, in the open. People being harsh to each other, loudly discussing their problems, fighting, laughing, kissing and showing affection. It's freed from the Swedish correctness. Roughness is mixed with tenderness, beauty with ugliness. There's this necessary, vibrant balance.
And your perception of what is ugly or beautiful will, I guess, differ depending on who you are and where you come from.
Exactly. There are no borders, no definitions, just different levels. Or maybe you could see it as different rooms - both public and secret. The question is where the secret, the private, begins and where it ends. Is anything secret anymore? These are the things that interest me. And both those worlds, the private and the public, are connected, especially within photography.
Is the idea of all these "different rooms" also somehow connected to your eclectic mix of photographic styles, techniques and aesthetics?
Mainly, I want to avoid formalistic limitations. But I guess being eclectic is a sort of style too, so I can't really say that. I couldn't care less about what is considered a good photograph; I no longer think in terms of "good" or "bad," I just let the camera tell stories. To me there's no hierarchical order when it comes to these different aesthetics, because using different techniques is required for what I'm trying to do; I want to be in all these different worlds. What interests me at the moment is carrying out, putting together and presenting my work.
Talking about presentation, would you say books are your medium of choice?
Definitely. I mean, I don't always take photos for the purpose of a book, but books have always been some kind of a starting point for me. It's pretty hip now, but back in the mid 90s, when I released my first book, Shelter, there was almost a general contempt towards the format.
In that case, there's certainly been a change of attitude on the book front. You have two new books coming up, right?
Yes. La Residence, with the Swedish publisher Journal, and Wells, with Steidl. La Residence was a project I did on a three-month grant-assignment at an artist residence in Brussels. The only condition was to depict Brussels in some way, but I had no relation to the place, so it was difficult. Maybe that book is about being groundless and maybe it's a bit of a failure. Nan Goldin wrote about it and analyzed the pictures quite well for the current issue of Foam.
That must be an honour.
It is. She's a good friend. She came to Varmland to visit me a few weeks ago.
As I understand it the second book, Wells, will be the last part of your book trilogy, preceded by Learning to Dance and Haunts. What would you say each book is about?
All three books are personal, most of my work is, but without being directly revealing. I formulate myself photographically about my surroundings, but I don't think anyone can tell anything about who I am and how I live from looking at my work. Learning to Dance is about secret rooms and innocence, with a lot of nudity - a third of it was self-portraits and the rest was pictures of my friends and surroundings in New York, within 200 metres from where I lived. Haunts, as the name implies, is about places, people and situations I've felt drawn to for different reasons. And Wells is about a love story, a pregnancy and a birth.
You chose a good Marcel Proust quote for Wells on your website, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."
I think it suits the book quite well. I'm more interested in returning to what I think I already know, to rediscover it and explore it, rather than travelling to some faraway place.
Do you have any favourite books and photographers?
Well, I have a few, but let's just say people - writers, artist - who have a lot of integrity inspire me. If what they do comes out of some sort of necessity. I'm also interested in the history of photography and all its different directions and how its legacy has been carried on, the ripple effect. I find it interesting to see how the photographic language has evolved.
Do you remember the first picture you ever took?
No, but I think I was about five when I started using a camera. I remember helping my dad develop films in the back yard, but it was nothing special, everyone did that back then. I was never really that interested in photography in particular, but I do recall taking the camera out to the woods as a teenager, taking pictures of trees and bushes, again, because I had that secret need to formulate how beautiful I found the nature around me. I've always loved the woods.
What camera did you use then?
My Nikon FM, that I still have, actually. It's good and reliable and I never have to think about anything when I use it.
However mildly interested you were in photography, you still landed a job as Mario Testino's assistant. How did that come about?
See, I don't come from a very cultivated background, so it wasn't until I was 20, or 21, and moved back to Paris - where everyone were doing photography of some kind - that I realised you could actually make a living out of it. A friend of mine knew Mario, so I got his number and just called him up, wonderfully naive as I was. I guess the reason he decided to hire me was because I was fluent in both French and English.
What's the main thing you drew from that experience?
That photography is an extremely serious business, in every step and on every level.
After Mario, you assisted Anders Petersen whose style is very different from Mario Testino's. What did Anders teach you?
Actually the same thing, but for Anders it was on a more existential and personal level. Mario had to take it extremely seriously because his clients were paying him a lot of money. I like when people take what they do seriously, because it has to do with taking responsibility and having self-respect.
Although, if you get too serious, you might lose your self-distance, and then you're no longer making good stuff. Cross the line either way and you're lost.
The risk is that if you can't handle that balance, you make a fool out of yourself. But that's exactly the risk you have to take. I don't know if I agree with what you said. I guess for some people, being a journalist, for example, you can't allow yourself to hesitate. You have to know exactly what you are doing because you need to tell the truth, so to say. It's different for artists I think, we need to dwell in doubt. For me, it has to do with trying and also failing. Self-doubt is an absolute necessity. It's a constant struggle, daring to expose what lies within, as well as trying to make a living out of photography. It's almost impossible these days.
Don't you get offered big commercial assignments all the time?
No, I guess people don't ask me because they think I wouldn't be interested, or something. There are those who actively seek out those kinds of jobs, I'm not that guy. Or maybe I'm just not the go-to guy for polished, glossy stuff, I don't know.
Maybe they feel intimidated by your reputation as an artist as some art photographers can be touchy about commercial work...
Really? I guess if you'd meet me in person you'd see that I'm anything but intimidating, I welcome everyone. As for commercial assignments, I'm totally up for doing stuff, as long as there is some freedom to do something that interests me.