Review by Ceri Restrick
The National Media Museum sets the bar for exhibiting world class art and culture. Swedish photographers, Anders Petersen (b. 1944) and J.H. Engström (b. 1969) opened From Back Home in October at NMM in Bradford. Having already exhibited in Paris and Stockholm, Bradford may not seem like the obvious choice for a UK debut; however, since Bradford became the recipient of the UNESCO City of Film Award in 2009, the city’s international reputation has grown dramatically. Because of this, it seems all the more appropriate that Petersen and Engström make their debut in Bradford at an innovative museum that boasts eight floors of galleries and three cinemas including an IMAX.
From Back Home originally started out as a book and is the physical manifestation of seven years of collaboration between Petersen and his assistant, Engström. Both Petersen and Engström are seasoned photographers with Petersen winning the Photographer of the Year award at the Arles Photography Festival in 2003 and being shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize in 2007, while Engström started off as Mario Testino’s assistant and was also shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize in 2005 for his book Trying to Dance (Journal 2004). Although both men are a generation and genres apart, they are linked by their shared history of Värmland, a rural backwater of Sweden where industry is in decline, long lakes and forests are in bountiful supply and town life is rarely interrupted by newcomers. These influences likely had an impact on the gallery space, which is like stepping into a design studio; clean cut with sharp graphics and sultry lighting.
Engström’s collection captures the viewers’ imagination. From the first glance it looks like an arrangement of simple portraits, but upon closer inspection the images reveal subjects who are gazing at the camera with a range of intense expressions; blue eyes pierce the viewer’s gaze and the familial and the familiar seep out of the frames exposing the relationships between the sitters. There is very little text accompanying the images, but this opens up the viewers’ imagination and ultimately permits the story of the artist to unfold, as we glimpse into each image, the narrative of teenager years causes reflection, and draws out the tiniest hint of nostalgia. Engström’s final montage reveals his personal involvement; the image of his naked body next to a medical diagram of genitalia juxtaposed with a variety of objects and landscapes is particularly striking.
A dramatic change from colour to black and white photography ensures that the audience’s gaze is steered to Petersen’s work. His angles are closely focused, with intimate portrayals of subjects that are haunting and terrifying: a snowman with holes for eyes, the rearing head of a horse, a slaughtered deer, the flesh of couples and the white blonde hair of children. Petersen’s use of sharp contrast is as distinctive as Tomas Alfredson’s cult horror film Let the Right One In (2008) and exudes the kind of small town community which the film explores. While their photographic styles are quite different, Engström adopts an analytical angle of his personal experience, while Petersen’s camera pervades the space of strangers; both photographers create intimacy and disconcertion with their juxtaposition of styles and their keen insight into the psyche of their subjects, provoking the melancholic joy of memory.
Greg Hobson, Curator of Photography at the Museum, remarks: “Neither photographer has attempted to make an objective portrayal of their homeland; instead they instinctively explore their memories; photographing friends and family, alongside people and places that are connected with their own recollections of growing up. The resulting images are affectionate, sometimes brutal and sometimes funny, but binding both men’s work are threads of sadness and solitude; Petersen described his recollections as ‘little hard memories of sad and lonely times’. It is this reflection of the memory’s ability to evoke such contradictory, yet complementary emotions that make From Back Home so noteworthy.”
From Back Home continues at the National Media Museum until 27th March 2011. Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday 10:00 – 18:00. Free Entry. www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk
Image: Untitled, From Back Home, 2001 – 2008 © Anders Petersen