Originally from Evanston, Illinois but now “loosely” based in New York City, Charlie Engman’s work is as distinctive as it is versatile. Characterised by vivid colours that place his models and props in carefully constructed worlds, his images sits somewhere between set design, photography and graphic design.
“I have a deep belief in the idiosyncratic, incidental, arbitrary, marginal and messy,” Charlie tells It’s Nice That before describing his practice as, “a constant attempt to surprise or contradict myself – a good hard look at patterns and habits, trying to love them by breaking them.” Throughout his career, Charlie’s images have appeared in Vogue US, Dazed & Confused and Another Magazine (among many others). In an interesting move, Charlie’s latest project sees him exploring how he presents his existing work, instead of making more of it to embody his aforementioned beliefs.
As a way to explore viewers’ interaction and engagement with his work, Charlie redesigned his website to function as a piece of stand-alone work. “Most people come across my images (most images) exclusively via the internet, so I wanted to make a space that was upfront about the fact that imagery is often consumed passively, while also challenging and engaging this passivity,” he explains of this decision.
With its revolving door of imagery that shoots across the screen from right to left upon interaction with the mouse, the site attempts to structure and gainsay the idea of Charlie as an image-maker and the experience of looking at and organising images. Mirroring the onslaught of imagery we experience, the longer you scroll, the more the elements stack and layer on top of each other, creating new compositions with every swipe.
Included in this tombola of photographic work is a variety of projects that appear in confusing and seemingly random orders. Charlie’s longest standing series – photographing his mother – is one that appears again and again. Currently working on a publication of the project, the series will also be exhibited at the Scrap Metal Gallery in Toronto this April. “I’ve been photographing her with intent for about 8 years now, and it is a constantly evolving interaction that continues to develop in surprising and contradictory ways (just how I like it),” he says.
Recently, Charlie documented both the Miss Rodeo USA 2017 competition and the opening of Rupaul’s DragCon in New York for Vogue US. Both series exhibit a superficial similarity – “a certain abandonment to a lifestyle, and rhinestones,” as he describes it. However, the picture each series paints of America under the Trump administration feels altogether different. Miss Rodeo USA 2017 took place in the immediate wake of Trump gaining office and its contestants with their gleaming smiles and perfect curls emulate an outdated ideal of the “American woman”. His images of DragCon on the other hand display immense diversity. “[The] underdog energy of this event was really striking and compelling,” Charlie recalls. “I also had a few encounters with people I photographed there that reminded me of the importance of representation and visibility.”
In curating the way we interact with his work so specifically, Charlie sets a tone and a comprehensive view of who he is a creative. Devoid of context, his images are disparate but manage to reflect his identity all the same: “I am pro-detour! pro-coincidence! I want to meet every controlling impulse with an undoing, a surprise, a mistake, a mismatch, a cliche,” he explains. As someone who believes that photography is “one of the most expedient ways to share information”, Charlie has created a portfolio site altogether fitting of both his aesthetic and process.
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