Friday, October 24, 2008

CDG / JHE by J H Engstrom

The bright orange bookcloth of J H Engstrom's new book from Steidl CDG/JHE gives an impression that it may hold promise of something light and cheerful. The internal content however is another story.

In this body of work, Engstrom sets us in the midst of Charles de Gaulle airport and, like a traveller who somehow can't seem to make it into the terminal or the exit, we wander a no man's land heavy with concrete barriers and odd bits of technology. There is a sense of stillness (in a place where everything always seems full of movement) that is almost apocalyptic.

Engstrom distresses his prints somehow and the resulting haze of greyness acts as a veil suppressing tone, color, saturation and light. While the parking lot may be full, there are no people save for one driving a baggage cart, seen only after close inspection. The stillness, in combination with the ashen air, seems daunting and inhospitable.

What we are to make of this I am not entirely sure. The photographs, with their tones of greyish blue and desaturated color are oddly beautiful. What they describe is territory that has a structure and machinery but it has all been left in dust. We pause in front of various objects: a baggage cart piled with wood, a swirl of tar on a patch of roadway, a pair of rubber boots half buried in the dry soil, the stilled luggage return and a maze of overpasses. We may wonder at their existence or use but their form is what is engaging and seductive.

After 46 images, Engstrom finishes the book with 7 images that are stills shot of a video of a man and a woman meeting and embracing. (In an airport?). That is certainly implied but uncertain. Brightly colored without the distressed look of the previous work, these few images as the final act of the book, distract from the initial tone and rhythm that we
have settled into. Their inclusion seems to hint at a conceptual framework or meaning that is unclear and ultimately bothersome. The contrast between the two is not enlightening nor necessary.

Overlooking the last few pages, CDG/JHE is an compelling if enigmatic work. Due to the seductive tonalities and the cleanliness of the design, I don't mind lingering in this world of airport still lifes. But in such an environment where movement is the preoccupation, those that get left behind might risk absorbing the melancholy involved in standing still.


Anonymous said...

Interesting look - have we been seeing a bit of this lately? Like a less extreme version of some of the pages in the Paul Graham book 'American Night'. I'm guessing it's really overexposed colour neg & then printed down. Anyway it seems to be working well with the subject matter in this book.
Michael W

Anonymous said...

Obviously an attractive object at first. Very quickly though, I found that book pointless.
There is a mystery, but it leads nowhere, it echoes no thought, no worries.
As Michael W writes : "it seems to be working well".
My problem with this nice book is : what else?
Susanna L

Anonymous said...


I am not sure of how the tones are achieved but my guess is that it looks similar to printing on very old color paper that is fogging from age, or paper being fogged on purpose. The greyness seems like something apart from the actual image.

Regardless, it has a stylized look I am usually very suspicious of, but here I don't harp on it.

Anonymous said...

What Engström does is that he overexposes color neg a lot. At +16 stops, everything disintegrates, but color neg is amazingly tolerant with overexposure.

It's bulb and guesswork. Bit formulaic after a while tho, methinks.

a mind with no ceiling said...

While this style of pictures was present in his previous two (magnificent) books, it was mixed with a dazzling variety of other styles and subject matters, color, n&b, blurry, overexposed, polaroid etc etc. Here, with such a classic design, unified subject matter and technique (though beautiful and haunting), it seems to me that it has lost some of its energy. "Formulaic" may be the word, probably because I understand it's a sort of side project, taken over the course of three weeks. I would love to have a print of one of these pictures at home, but as a book it feels redundant, and I'll rather eagerly wait for "Wells", the third part of his trilogy.

Anonymous said...

After seeing this video
it is obvious clear who he man and woman at the end of the book are.