Charlie Engman has a reputation for subverting the conventions of fashion photography. The artless peculiarity of his intuitive and singular lens has earned him a place as one of the most sought-after young names in the business. Since 2009 the Chicago-born photographer has been seriously pushing the envelope with the daring portraits of his mother he started taking after moving home in a post-university daze. But it wasn’t until his fashion spread in the Hungarian magazine The Room in 2012 that the rest of the world was introduced to Kathleen McCain Engman, his muse.
Contorted and often in various states of undress, Charlie’s photographs of his mother unapologetically play with taboo. There’s an awkward beauty to them that means even some of the more provocative and eyebrow-raising pictures resist being tasteless. This partly owes to his focus on form, a remnant of his days as a dancer clearly visible in the strange poses and the off-kilter compositions he is known for. His mother becomes almost sculptural in his work, but one of the most pronounced contradictions is how she manages to appear both submissive and empowered at the same time.
How did you start taking photographs?
When I came to Oxford from Chicago I was already involved with performance and dance. I started taking photographs of gestures and my body, almost like notes or memos. This was pre-iPhone and before I had a camera on my phone, but if I’d had one they would have been those kinds of pictures: they were very disposable, very plastic, quick and from the gut, so to speak. I really had a layman’s perspective on photography, I didn’t really give it a lot of credence as a creative form; for me it was very utilitarian. That’s definitely informed how I take pictures even now that I have the technical knowledge and a lot more experience. I would say that kind of naïve approach is actually very important to the way I shoot and I think it definitely has something to say about how I still look at things and share them through photography.
"I didn't really think about those first pictures of my mom very much but over time I realised they had this quality that I really like in photography. I didn’t recognise the person in the pictures."Charlie Engman
What pushed you to keep taking pictures of your mother?
I didn’t really think about those first pictures of my mom very much but over time I realised they had this quality that I really like in photography: either taking something regular and very familiar and making it feel really uncomfortable or uncanny, or taking something really polished and making it look like a cheap postcard. I think this is the really exciting part of photography, and I really noticed this with the pictures of my mom because I didn’t recognise the person in the pictures.
Working together collaboratively and creatively, how has your relationship changed?
I’ve always been very close with my mother which is why I’ve been able to take these kinds of photographs in the first place. She understands my process much more intuitively, and I think also through working with her I’ve understood how you can stretch the limits of working with someone else. Because it’s still an ongoing project I’m still working through what I’m learning from it. It’s very interesting though, it’s taught me a lot about power relationships in photography. With a mother-son relationship there are very specific dynamics at play that are kind of reversed when someone becomes a subject, but she’s also a very active participant. She does what I ask her to do but she also suggests a lot and she pushes back when she feels like things aren’t working.
How did your mother respond to all the attention your photographs have received?
I think she’s loved the attention to be honest. My favourite story out of all of this so far is after I did that first story for The Room, a creative director saw that work and called me and was asking if I had the model’s contact details and I said, “Yes… she’s saved in my phone as Mom." And they hired her for a series of TV commercials with Courtney Love. Just her and Courtney Love doing some funny ad spot for electronic cigarettes, of all things. It’s just hilarious. I think it was sort of a surprise for my mom who’s in her mid-60s now, kind of like “Oh, okay, this is what I’m doing now.”
"They hired her for a series of TV commercials with Courtney Love. Just her and Courtney Love doing some funny ad spot for electronic cigarettes, of all things."Charlie Engman
What are some of the more recent projects you’ve done with her?
We’ve been taking a lot of road trips throughout America and just sort of responding to the situations at hand, and we’ve been doing a lot more studio-based stuff and really using her more as a material or an object in a way. Then we’ve also been doing things that are very straightforward, very normal and as she presents herself day to day. Because she’s so unfamiliar in some of the other photographs I felt it was important to do something where she is very familiar and feels like the person I recognise; something that is a bit more documentary. Those are the three aspects that I’m working on with her, but the big thing is trying to culminate the work in some way soon and release it as a book. We’ll see!