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'It's not about photography, it's about life'

The latest OCA study trip was to the National Media Museum to listen to Greg Hobson, the museum’s photography curator in conversation with JH Engstrom, one of two photographers behind the Museum’s current exhibition From Back Home. The event had been previously billed as featuring both photographers, but Anders Petersen was unwell and had been advised not to travel. Initially disappointed to hear this news 24 hours before the event, I came to appreciate the extra time given to Engstrom. It is clear for both photographers their work is a search, an autobiographical enquiry and something they are driven to do. The resulting body of work in From Back Home is not so much a study of Sweden’s Varmland but an exploration of the photographers’ relationship with the place where they grew up. Mark Lomas filmed the talk so I will not try to summarise it – we will post the video as soon as we had time to edit it, but as the exhibition closes this weekend I would urge those students who can to visit.
We than saw a slideshow of Engstrom’s latest work ‘Wells’ which he explained was his first narrative work dealing with the relationship which led to the birth of his twins – I found the linear, but non-chronological, stream of images spellbinding, even though some of the individual images would hardly attract attention. It brought it home to me that the term ‘digital photography’ is so often associated with the production of images, when in fact it the distinction between digital and non-digital distribution of photography which is now of far greater significance.
Following a film on Anders Petersen, which at least answered the question ‘what does he put on his walls?’ (Answer, a large print by Daido Moriyama) was followed by a question and answer session and then the OCA group took to the cafe where we tried to piece together our reactions. Amano, whose photo of Engstrom is above, was less convinced of the merits of From Back Home than perhaps I was (you can read his reaction here) and I hope the other students present will soon be sharing their views.

Posted by author: Genevieve Sioka
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15 thoughts on “'It's not about photography, it's about life'

  • I also noticed the Moriyama poster…
    Another good day (keep them coming), and it has fired up all sorts of ideas in my head. Will it prove the catalyst for my YOP project? Possibly. It was interesting to hear his comments about things, although perhaps he was slightly elusive sometimes (or maybe did not know the answer).
    The slide show was riveting: looking at the images in isolation, there were maybe two or three that would pique my interest for longer than a casual look but when viewed in quick succession I found them much more successful. The ordering was interesting too, as this kept up the dynamic. Works much better than the groupings in the gallery for the From Back Home set.
    My notes will appear on my blog soon enough, I’m just working on something else first.

  • Perhaps the biggest merit of From Back Home is that it reminds us that photography is all about self-expression. Descriptive images tend to deceive us into believing that what we see is ‘things as they are’, when in fact what we see is ‘things as the photographer felt them’. Anders Petersen doesn’t seem to be bothered about re-presenting the world out there; he produces intense visual fragments of life which mimic the experience of living – gritty, ambiguous, incoherent at times. Very much like Moriyama does.
    And talking about Moriyama, if there is a heir to his very distinctive style, it has to be Jacob Aue Sobol. Only a few years ago he took the photography scene by storm with his ‘Sabine’ photographs. Sobol says that his images come ‘from his stomac’ – i.e. a gutural process. And if you have any doubts of whether that can be done just check these out:

  • Some other points which resonated with me were:
    • “take yourself seriously as a photographer”
    • “photography is a language, it is not life”
    The bleached colours in some of his pictures were initially accidental, but later used to add a sense of times past.
    A film about the work of Peterson followed, and it was interesting to contrast the relationship between each photographer and his subject. Engstromm was noticeably more distant. On the other hand Peterson spoke on the film about the importance of being ‘close’ to the subject in a metaphorical sense. This raises the question, again, about the photographer as participant or observer? I suspect at the moment my own photography has to date been very much in the photographer as observer camp. This may change through the work on People and Place.

      • Yes, I think that’s exactly what he meant, Amano. I seem to recall that the main lesson he felt he took from his period as Assistant to Mario Testino was an understanding of just how seriously a professional photographer is about his/her work.

  • PS: I really didn’t like the slide show as an entity, or even as a set of individual pictures. It seemed to me very intrusive into other people’s lives – and these were family!

  • Fascinating responses and blog entries – I hope people who attended are stimulated by seeing each others views and people who couldn’t attend are motivated to explore the links.
    I am reminded of a quote by Phillip Lorca DiCorcia “Photography is a foreign language everyone thinks he speaks…”
    There was a real sense listening to Engstrom of him struggling to use photography to communicate and preferring to communicate though images than words

    • At one point, Engstrom seemed exasperated by the photograph, saying that it did not amount to much in the end. This shows in the exhibition which is more about a group of photographs rather than particular photographs!

  • It is most gratifying to read the interest that Tuesday’s event generated and the number of students who managed to attend. I am on the lookout for other occasions to make available to students.

    • Alan
      It was good meeting you and listening to what you had to say!
      I see that the National Media Museum is having another photographic exhibition from the middle of April onwards. This is based on the history of photography from the beginnings to the end of the 20’th century. What would interest me if there is some kind of event such as a study day to accompany this.
      Its’ a long way from Somerset to Yorkshire but worth the journey if there is something going on!
      P.S. hope you like your photograph posted on my blog!

  • How interesting to read all the comments. I am a newly enrolled student – how do I find out about these visits / workshops?

  • Hello, is there any more footage from this? I have seen the short clip about Engstrom’s beginnings in photography and would love to see/hear more, its a rare treat to to see him speak – wish I had been able to see the exhibit!

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