This is the tale of JH Engstrom…
Loneliness is a strange bird. If it is called upon… at first it comes like a quiet stranger and slowly befriends you. It then starts to seeps into the skin… to live inside of you as sort of an ally… to strengthen you in your pain, as a place to escape, to go to it, to survive by it, to turn “inside”… to find shelter, to find refuge. It acts as a shield, erects for you a barrier… but then, it starts to take over… it fills you up, and emptiness sets in. What was once “you” is now something “else”… a chasm, a quiet chamber where numbness echoes and your mind screams out for someone to care. The one that you were going to be has quietly left you, the one that you were going to become has slowly gone away and instead, you are left in the shadows, a shell… a walking veneer. The emptiness that makes up the internal “you” soon finds your exterior. It comes from the hidden inside to the bare outside, the eye’s give off the clues like a poker tell… the secret inside of you is able to be seen… your isolation and hardness tell your tale… and so your face becomes your betrayer. You now walk with your secret as a mask for all to see, covering up what once was you… and telling the world that you are no longer there or letting the world see that it is a partial you. In the work that is “Shelter”, JH Engstrom tells this human tale… he speaks of loneliness and isolation, he advertises this progression to a hardened self… he is a novelist of the pattern of abuse that turns to hardness. He speaks of the emotional cold, the freezing cold… cold skin-cold walls-cold cheeks, and cold hearts. He hits with past violence, with alcohol, he bleeds out a cry for intimacy… of raw human womanly existence and raw human skin. Oh yes he tells a complex tale.
As you look at the imagery, you think you know the tale but whose tale is it? Is this the tale of the subjects? Is this the tale of JH Engstrom himself, is it the visual aesthetic that is used or is it the tale of the women that he portrays? Is the subject matter really what this is about or is this about JH Engstrom? Herein lies a wonderful trap for the viewer and in this trap lies the neverending magic that lives within portraiture itself… who do we see when we look at the work… is it the subject, is it the photographer… when we “feel” the work, “how” we feel the work… is it them, is it him… or is it us? Perhaps within this riddle the answer lies… perhaps in the layers and in this shared experience… perhaps it is the three of us together and the art is serving as a window and as the mirror. Yes, I think so… this is how it it is… this is how it should be…
Coming from the far north of Sweden and with deep ties to Anders Petersen and apprentice ties to Mario Testino, “Shelter” is JH Engstrom’s first published work. Published in 1997, and named photo book of the year in Sweden, it was made over the course of three years, at a women’s shelter. To step into this early work of his is to enter the complex world of what it is to be human, what it is to be woman and what it is to be JH Engstrom. This is subjective art… poetic and mysterious, it is not a documentary. It is real but it is fiction… this is a vision. A surreal view and with a technique that praises flaws, with an approach lifts up imperfection… this work relishes brokeness… in scratches, it’s dirt, in the film, in the scans and in the subjects. These women are real, they are raw… we are not here to pity them but we can see their pain. We can feel the violence but also their sexuality… we see the empty and we see the human. They have been beaten, they have been cast aside and also they are lovely… they are beautiful-they are ugly… they are strong-they are weak, they are living-they are dead… they are tough-they are breaking… they are empty-they are alive. They are hidden but they are bare.
This is the complex dance of JH, these are the opposing forces of his art, this is his “self” and these women in “Shelter” are his art… “Shelter” is raw, poetic and gritty… it is a beautiful dance.
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