Hyères 2014: Tête à Tête with Charlie Engman

During the festival of Hyères, KENZINE hung out with KENZO collaborator Charlie Engman in the Naples-yellow stairwell of the Villa Noailles, where he had just put the finishing touches to his exhibition, La Romaine.


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KENZINE: Jean-Pierre Blanc invited you to create a photo series in the recently abandoned Villa Romaine, in Hyères. Tell us about your first thoughts on the project.

Charlie Engman: This work occupies a rather different space from my other work. I don’t normally work this way where the project has a very specific narrative and historical aspect, but I was intrigued. When I was invited by the festival to come and check out La Romaine they really gave me carte blanche, saying “you have this house, you can do anything you want even if it’s just using a tiny corner”. I had no obligation to present the house. But it was just so loud, there was so much going on, even without all the furniture and trappings, and so it inevitably became part of the narrative process.  

K: La Romaine is an enormous mansion on the hill above Hyères, just like the Villa Noailles. Tell us about your impressions of it?

C.H.: La Romaine was built by an individual who had the intention of erecting the modern Versailles. He precised in his will that is was donated to a charitable foundation who then in turn sold everything they could sell, leaving the shell of the house in a strange state, which is how I found it. All my models are local people from Hyères. There is this very opulent atmosphere within the house, but it has a very outdated quality about it. I suppose the presentation of the fruit in my photographs suggests that too. For me La Romaine was a baroque failure, and there was a reference for me there. I also got the impression that it had been a very weird gay bachelor pad; it has some very sensual Greek motifs – there is an uncomfortable, forced homosexuality about it.

K: What kind of energy is there in La Romaine?

C.H.: I have a very ambivalent relationship with La Romaine. I have to admit I personally found it quite disgusting, and that has positive and negative outcomes for me as a photographer because of course disgusting can be quite exciting. I found the fact that it had been stripped by the foundation, and the fact that the owner had deigned to gift it to the foundation in the first place both quite disturbing. The building itself was in a really bad way; there was mold everywhere and it was really hard to breath in the basement for instance. No one is taking care of this place. It’s unheimlich.

K: Your exhibition is on display at Villa Noailles in this very long and narrow yellow-painted stairwell leading up to the hanging garden. Did the exhibition space inform the way you approached this project?

C.H.:  When I approach a show, I usually take quite a formalist approach to the installation. I wouldn't say the exhibition space informed much of the work itself, but when it came to mounting the work, of course the stair's inevitable progression of up and down and the closeness of the left and right walls (and their stucco texture and strange yellow color!) had a huge impact on the mounting of the work. It's very physical and intimate. So I would stand on the step and feel it out: ‘this should actually be printed much smaller, this bigger…this needs to be framed, and this needs some bling… (pointing to a gold chandelier earring attached to a photo). Actually these were left over in my props bucket from the shoot. I thought they went very well with the motif on this door here…(pointing to an image of a door with gold moulding).


K: Are props something you bring from your fashion photography?

C.E.: I don’t have a relationship to photography-as-documentary, because I think that comes with a lot of baggage. Of course you have to deal with reality; it’s an essential component that has to be confronted. For me play is an important thing, and so is engaging the camera as an active participant in the photograph. I am much more interested in directly putting my hand into the image rather than capturing a ‘pure’, unadulterated moment at a distance. So perhaps the bag of props on hand is a good metaphor for my work.

K: What do you like most about the Hyères festival?

C.E.: To me it’s the energy.  There’s so much generosity and excitement. Often with these things you hear “carte blanche…” but that offer is always tempered with issues of ego, and of political economics. Here, I was really trusted and given total respect and freedom. The Villa Noailles is just bursting with positivity. There is no ‘no’. Every kind of thought I had was given a consideration. I think how Jean-Pierre Blanc has built up the festival is incredible: the way he has engaged people coming into his orbit, latching onto people who are really trying to communicate something. The generosity and conviction is overwhelming.