Hard Memories – Anders Petersen’s and J. H. Engström’s From Back Home

 The land between Klarälven River and the chestnut tree at Ekallén is full of little hard memories of sad and lonely times, but there is also a streak of warm confidence that runs all the way up to Algsjörallen, a place of fairy tale creatures and inquisitive moose. I am carrying my camera, shooting those old dreams through the foliage. It means my memories can never be destroyed, because they no longer end in themselves.’                                         Anders Petersen

Maybe you can’t really go back home/ But this is where I’m from./These images pay homage,/ to the people and landscapes that are my origins./ I’ve returned to something my body and emotions recognize.’                 J. H. Engström

One of the most widespread genres in contemporary photography is the ‘diaristic mode’. It is largely, but not exclusively, a post-World War Two phenomenon, deriving from a generation of photographers who, whilst still documenting life, turned their cameras inwards, recording their personal experiences and feelings – although that did not necessarily mean documenting their own immediate lives. As John Szarkowski noted, writing of this generation in the 1960s: ‘In the past decade a new generation of documentary photographers has directed the documentary approach towards more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.’

The diaristic approach owes much to existentialism, the post-War philosophy that placed so much emphasis upon the primacy of the individual. Existentialism influenced a general turning-inwards of art, and with it a desire to utilize the spontaneity of the subconscious, making art directly dredged up from within, devoid of conscious mediation. Writing employing this approach was called ‘stream-of-consciousness’, and this could also be applied to photography – representing an attempt to replicate the direct naivety of the untutored family snapshot, which is the diaristic mode par excellence.

Northern European photographers were always as the forefront of this tendency. The Dutch photographer, Ed van der Elsken, photographed his real (or imagined) love life in his book, Love on the Left Bank (1956), while his compatriot, Joan van der Keuken – seventeen at the time – documented his friends in We are 17 (1955). In Sweden, the work of Christer Strömholm represents another monument of diaristic and stream-of-consciousness photography. Strömholm’s work is wholly personal – spontaneous, edgy, idiosyncratic, focusing upon the lives (especially the sexual mores) of those with whom he came into contact. He demonstrated that diaristic photography is frequently about sub-cultures within society, for one of its most valuable features is often an attraction to rebellion and non-conformism.

In Anders Petersen’s and J. H. Engström’s collaborative project, From Back Home, there is an unbroken link with Strömholm, representing three generations of Swedish photography. Petersen studied at Strömholm’s Stockholm photo-school in the 1960s, before going on to make the work that made his name, his document of the Hamburg, Café Lehmitz, published in 1978. And Engström was Petersen’s assistant before finding his own photographic fame with his book, Trying to Dance (2003).

That connection is quite clear, but I think one must also note another characteristic of Swedish photography, and that is its regionalism. Like Finnish photography, Swedish is a distinctly rural as well as a metropolitan photography, where photographers are related to deep rooted communities rather the more transient communities of urban life. Another precedent for From Back Home is the work of Sune Jonsson. His book, The Village With the Blue House (1959), and others, such as Children of Grace (1963), are further Swedish classics in the diaristic mode, ostensibly documentary studies in an objective, ethnographic vein. Nevertheless, Jonsson spent most of his career in the remote northern province of Västerbotten, his home province, photographing families and people he had known since childhood.

Now Anders Petersen and J. H. Engström have added to this tradition. One of photography’s primary characteristics – if not its primary characteristic – is to take one ‘there’, and that means not just in a physical sense, but in a temporal and psychological sense. Here are two photographers going ‘home’ – and home in this case means another remote region of Sweden, Värmland.. The pair have collaborated in trying to evoke the idea of home in the most complex way. Each is making a personal journey, but they are also making a record of place, confirming that the most personal documentary photography, contrary perhaps to expectation, can also be the truest, since, as the American photographer, John Gossage, once said: ‘It’s all fiction.’ In the early 1970s, one of the most popular slogans was ‘the personal is the political’, which looks forward to a notion many hold about photography today, that there is no such thing as a truly objective photographer, and that diaristic photography, apparently the most subjective, can function as the most heartfelt and honest document of our times.

Värmland – the ‘province of a thousand lakes’ – is one of Sweden’s least populated regions, nearer in fact to Oslo, in Norway, than Stockholm. The soil is too poor to support agriculture on a large scale, although many scratch a living from traditional Swedish smallholdings. There are attempts to develop the tourist industry, especially outdoor pursuits like fishing, hiking, and hunting.

Travelling back separately over a number of years,* Petersen and Engström visited Värmland to photograph friends and family, and also places, people, and events connected with their recollections of growing up. But with the two friends being the kind of photographers they are, this was never going to be a saccharine, bittersweet exercise in cosy nostalgia. Although the pasts of both men resonates through their imagery, these pictures are firmly in the present, of the here and now. Petersen’s magnificent portrait of his mother, containing all the gravitas of a Nadar, is, I would suggest, atypical. However personal each photographer’s vision, for me it is the sociological aspect of the project which demands attention.

That, I would suggest, is because Petersen and Engström are two who managed to ‘escape’ from a rural and provincial existence, and went to the metropolis – Stockholm – and beyond. In every remote rural area, especially one where economic opportunities are limited, there are those who dream of leaving, probably – although one can never really tell – a sizeable minority. Some manage it successfully. Others, due to a combination of circumstances, or maybe simply lassitude, do not. Those who make the break are still tied to the motherland by a strong pull, an invisible umbilical cord. They return from time to time, to visit friends and relatives, but over the years, although home is where the heart is, the connection gets weaker, gradually, imperceptibly, as lives that once were close develop along widely differing paths, and people change, or even die. After twenty, thirty, forty years away, few return to stay, and if they do, it tends not to turn out well.

From Back Home is about this sometimes painful process – returning home and seeing it from two different perspectives, from the perspectives of both the insider and the outsider. And for me, the outsider just wins out, for as Engström says, ‘maybe you really can’t go back home.’ It is also a question of the temporal perspectives. Although the past of each photographer resonates through their imagery, these pictures are firmly in the present – of the here and now. It cannot be any other way.

Another crucial aspect of the project is the interaction between the images of each. That is to say, the differences between Petersen and Engström. They are very different in approach and temperament. Petersen photographs in his signature manner, in gritty, stream-of-consciousness black-and-white, while Engström, typically, employs both colour and monochrome, the colour an amalgam of his trademark faded snapshot look and a more straightforward colour approach. Perhaps more interestingly, there are psychological differences. Petersen, I think, is the more unflinching, emotional photographer, sticking his camera into situations where others fear to tread, for instance what seems the emergency room of a local hospital. But paradoxically he is the warmer of the two, photographing with his heart, whereas Engström tends to photograph with his head. Engström seems more circumspect, distanced – cold, if you like, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. Petersen wears his heart on his sleeve, Engström gives little away. And this may well represent a generational as well as a temperamental gap. J. H. is a thoroughly postmodern photographic artist, exploring photographic genres, the washed-out snapshots, for instance, and surveillance photography, seen in a series of aerial views. Petersen simply photographs.

The similarities derive from their subject-matter, both found similar things to photograph. This is not a winter project, the snowy Swedish wastes hardly feature at all. Nor, although there are more interior photographs than winter ones, is it particularly an interior project. Both photographers have concentrated upon the outdoors. They have photographed the landscape, the trees and lakes, and odd places on the edges of towns, but primarily their focus is upon people, and especially upon social gatherings. Social gatherings, on those long, still summer nights, in the open air. It is sometimes difficult to make out exactly what these are, but we can reasonably guess events like picnics, barbecues, dances, concerts, fairs, and raves. The Swedish summer is brief, the winters long and hard, so every opportunity to get outside must be taken.

Such social gatherings are also the lifeblood of rural communities, where people can meet, talk, laugh, dance, eat, drink, and court – with the last two mentioned of these activities being particularly important. I have used the word lifeblood deliberately, for I think this is From Back Home’s primary theme – lifeblood, blood and life, lifelines, bloodties. Lifeblood is signified right from Petersen’s first image, of a birth, and again in an image of an operation – or possibly a death as the patient’s body is being measured with a tape. Death and old age reoccur at intervals as a foil to the amorous couplings of the young and not-so-young, but although Petersen talks of ‘hard little memories’ and the hard facts of life disrupt the apparently continuous revelling, From Back Home, paradoxically, is by no means a pessimistic work.

Bloodties also play an important role in the drama. The photographers have bloodties with Värmland, and the protagonists – young, middle-aged, old – are tied together by blood across the generations. Courtship and sex, ensuring the continuity of the bloodline, are important anywhere, but perhaps more so in remote areas, where clinging together is necessary for both physical and mental survival. Alone, you would go mad out there, so both photographers have made particularly intense photographs of dancing and hugging, where the almost desperate physical contact is denoting sex, certainly, but also community and mutual dependence.

As well as depicting the communal aspects of communal life, however, Peteresen and Engström also indicate its claustrophobia. Many of the pictures are taken at night, and with the darkness pressing in, there seems no place to go. Along with the images of gaiety, there are others of people just standing around, looking bored. It’s hard to be anonymous and totally free in the country. Everybody knows everybody else, and knows their business. The same faces will reappear year after year at these gatherings, until death eventually denies them an entrance ticket. There is both empathy and sympathy in the work of the two, but there seems an element, inevitably, of ‘I’m glad I got away.’

Important societal issues are also hinted at, however obliquely, in the sense of claustrophobia – about limited opportunities, the decline of traditional ways of life, the dichotomy between conservatism and modernity, the drain to the cities. From Back Home is complex, ambiguous, riddled with paradoxes – between past and present, memory and experience, closeness and distance, regret and defiance. The tone of the work is almost enough to define bitter-sweetness, The whole is suffused with the echoes of some lives lived well and others unfulfilled. And in the case of the teenager shown here of promise or disappointment still to come. The words ‘if only’ run through the images like an invisible leitmotif. Looking at these beautiful, terrible pictures, I am constantly reminded of the words of T. S. Eliot from the Four Quartets:

What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present./ Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage which we did not take/ Towards the door we never opened.’

 

 * Anders Petersen’s pictures were taken mostly in 2008, but with some dating back to the 1990s. J. H. Engström’s were taken between 2001 and 2008. 

National Media Museum, Bradford, 2010