This elegant and puzzling new photo book at first seems at odds with all of the photographer’s previous work, and with the publisher’s long-held reputation for ultra-high quality printing. All photos are reproduced as full pages, with a neat white border trimming each image. The paper of the book has a rich feel as you turn the pages, and the bright orange cloth -covered hardbound volume feels hefty in the hand, and substantial. But each of the somber, grey, literally lifeless photos seems enshrouded in a dense atmosphere of dull dark smog. At first it looks like a terrible mistake.

Engström’s photographs are of mundane details easily noticed around the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, and they would be quite unremarkable, in my opinion, except for the fact that we are forced to look hard at each desaturated image as we try to penetrate the smudgy veil to understand what it is exactly that we are looking at, and why we should care.

Everything is obscured by grey smog — indeed it is the uniformity of the carbon-exhaust “look” that holds these photos together as a series and forces us to try to recognize a pattern and logic and meaning in this work. The fact that there is absolutely no text at all in the book to introduce or explain this series of photos makes it even more of a mystery for the reader to decipher.

This is a big departure for Engström, who, for sure, has never been wary of taking risks with his photography. In the past, clarity of vision, humanity, and a sense of humor (even delight) filled his work. This new work is dark, somber and pessimistic.

The clichéd phrase “post-apocalyptic” comes to mind. This work is far from cliché, however. True, everything we encounter here  seems deserted and abandoned. We are in places of unanimated thresholds and fences, where concrete barriers, technology and cold architecture co-exist with hard scrabble bits of tough ugly nature. All of it seems tattered, coated with grime, beat and worn-out. Yet the ordinary nature of what is photographed is infused with uneasy energy. These could be stills from the set of a Tarkovsky movie.

Is it an attempt to capture the mildly aching sadness and melancholy that fills weary travelers who are stuck in a nowhere zone between departures and destinations? Is this a meditation on global warming and how air travel is ruining the earth’s atmosphere? Is it a complaint about the ugliness of exposed infrastructure in the temporary holding tanks we call airports? Is it a cry of despair about the conditions of contemporary life?

A brief sequence of brightly lit photos closes this series, perhaps to assure the reader that the darkness is intentional and not an error. A CCT surveillance camera captures a smiling, intimate exchange between a man and a woman as they greet each other and embrace. The images are fluorescent bright, and the colors are not natural. They seem to come from far away, mediated by the flickering of a video screen. Perhaps this camera is operated by a remote form of intelligence seeking signs of life and love in an otherwise barren environment.

Whatever the intention or the interpretation, this book encourages (insists on) an inner, questing dialogue — and that, for me, makes it a success. This is a photo book that exploits its medium to the fullest.

— Jim Casper

by JH Engström
Hardcover: 112 pages
29.7 cm x 23 cm
Publisher: Steidl
Co-published with GUN, Stockholm.
ISBN: 978-3-86521-538-3
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