Charlie Engman, Mom

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Edition Patrick Frey (here). Hardcover, 220 pages, with 521 color reproductions. Includes essays by Rachel Cusk and Miranda July. In an edition of 1200 copies. Edit by Stephanie Rebonati. Design by Brian Paul Lamotte and the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Charlie Engman started making photographs of his mother over a decade ago, in 2009. Initially, he was just naturally taking pictures of everything around him, including his parents. But then he noticed that his mother seemed to change in front of the camera. “Sometimes people transform for the camera, I couldn’t recognize the person in the picture.” This observation led to a long term artistic project, his daring composite portrait of his mother Kathleen McCain Engman, at times both intimate and provocative.

The series has recently been released in a photobook by a Swiss publisher Edition Patrick Frey. Simply titled Mom, the photobook immediately stands out. It has a luxurious yellow cloth cover, and the title appears on the spine in all caps evenly spread out. On the cover, photographs of Kathleen pile up on top of each other; the last one is an actual photo glued on top, a set of three passport-style head shots. We only get a glimpse of the images in this stacked collage, but it signals right away that the presentation of the imagery will be rather unconventional. 

Mom opens with a graceful portrait of Kathleen – she is outside, wearing a white top, and there is a blurry rainbow arcing through the sky behind her, and it is a welcoming and warm image of a mother. We also immediately notice her red hair, her freckles, and her intense gaze. The following few spreads show her standing on the street in a black coat, caught walking, photographed from behind, and peeking from behind a car. Then, a spread pairs a photo of Kathleen standing straight in slightly baggy pants and a t-shirt, with one hand on her hip, looking right back at us, with a full spread photo of her standing against a brick wall – she wears a dark red pantsuit, sunglasses, and slightly leans against the wall with her arm up. There is no doubt that she is not only participating in the making of these images, she is in confident control.

The book contains just slightly over 500 photographs, and every single one of them is of Kathleen. Throughout the photobook, the images constantly change in both size and placement on the spreads. The visual flow seems intentionally intense, mixing full spread photographs, snapshots, screenshots, even cut outs, and densely layering them, occasionally placing a few dozen photos on a single spread or collaging them together. There is a certain build up of chaos in this approach, indirectly playing with the surplus of images and identities that overwhelms us today. It brings attention to the image making process, and then isolated photographs highlight the formal quality of a particular image. The relationships established between the photographs, through juxtapositions, sequencing, and layout, create an exciting and unexpected momentum, and seen as one artistic statement, they assemble into a complex multi-layered portrait.

Engman portrays his mother in a parade of surreal scenes and performances – on fashion shoots, in the studio, at home, on the side of the road, and in a desert – and the makeup, costumes, and various backdrops are essential elements in these photoshoots. Throughout the book, we see the almost endless possibilities of Kathleen’s haircut, and her seemingly vast collection of wigs and outfits. She also comfortably appears in various states of undress – she runs across open fields nude in an unbuttoned jean dress and white socks, looking lost or puzzled, and she stands in the dark in a black dress with her breasts out while it snows. In other playful images, Kathleen wears a huge blonde wig and extreme makeup reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s looks, and her face appears behind a goldfish bag filled with water, distorting her features like those of a cartoon character.

There is an awkward beauty in these photographs, as Kathleen alternately appears both submissive and empowered. Yet there is no doubt that Kathleen is fearful and magnetic, funny and eccentric, intense and risky. She is an equal collaborator in this act, regardless of the maternal role. Clearly, the trust established between mother and son – or a willing model and a photographer – has offered endless possibilities to explore. 

Nearer the end of Mom, there is a portrait of Kathleen without any make up, her hair pulled back, and she looks straight but her gaze seems to wander. This picture is followed by two spreads pairing full bleed close ups of her face with smaller images of her full body nude, standing straight, almost like a sculpture. These provocations are then softened by a small portrait of her in white shirt, with a candid and unstaged smile. The last photograph in the book completes the circle – it returns to the  portrait of Kathleen under the rainbow, but this time she wears no clothes and looks at the camera, her mouth slightly open. It feels like she is at the end of this intense and overwhelming journey, in some sense, calming us down. 

With so much intensity built into these photographs, the series makes us think about the relationship this mother and son must have. The photographs are clearly derived from an intelligent creative process, both intimate and challenging. This approacfh brings to mind the work of Leigh Ledare, who photographed his mother modeling nude, masturbating, and involved with a younger male lover, in a raw and authentic series. While these images don’t cross into those sexual zones, both series challenge the stereotypes of motherhood, and what it means to look and to be seen. In portraying Kathleen, Mom reveals a complex exchange, raising questions about representation, control, boundaries, but also intimacy and fantasy. Its inventive use of layering and dense image placement also make it an excellent example of how the photobook form can be used to reframe a body of work. Between the imagery and the design, Mom stands out as one of the strongest photobooks published so far this year.

Collector’s POV: Charlie Engman is represented by M.A.P. Ltd (here). His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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