Tête à tête with Charlie Engman

We met Charlie a month ago in Paris on one of the very last warm days of summer. A quick catch instantly very friendly and promising... One week after he was shooting the last "Spread of the week" section for us...

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KENZINE: You were born in the US, you studied Japanese and Korean in UK and you now split your time between Paris and New York City.  Do you feel like a citizen of the world?

Charlie Engman: I feel like a citizen of the airport security line! But without sounding so glib, what I really mean is: there are definitely still physical and cultural boundaries. I am actually very grateful that I live in a time when it's easy enough to move around as much as I do, but it's still not so easy that I take it for granted. I still feel like I have a home that I can return to.


K: Are Asian cultures a big source of influence for your work?

C. E.: I think Asian cultures are a big influence in my life in general. I developed close connections with Asia when I was quite young, but not so young that I didn't already have something to compare it to. It's very similar to the airport situation - I know where I'm from, but I'm not stuck there.


K: You did not study photography. How did you learn and what motivated you to become a photographer?

C. E.: I started taking pictures in university while I was studying Japanese and Korean. I was always doing my own little half-finished art projects, and the accessibility of photography was very attractive during my busy busy school years. I loved that you could push a button and instantly retain an idea. It was a rather irresponsible way to approach photography perhaps, but it's the gosh darn truth! But again, it's this same phenomenon: nowadays there is really a very low bar to entry to photography - we almost all have camera phones - and yet photography is elusive. It's approachable but still respects a lot of energy - there is something very compelling to me in this.


K: For you, what distinguishes fashion photography from other kinds of photography?

C. E.: I am very generous in this regard. I think any photographic imagery that contains a malleable material and some functional styling thereof can be considered as a fashion photograph. Essentially, everything. It's the context, of course. To me, if it's given the right treatment, a picture of a trash bag is totally a fashion picture - that's an obvious example even!


K: You’re mainly known as a fashion photographer, do you also show more personnal work as well?

C. E.: So for me, I don't draw so many distinctions. My work is all just a big fetish-fest of materials and gestures. I like to make things for and with other people, and I have had the great fortune of collaborating with a lot of fashion brands and magazines, and of course with collaboration comes compromise, so much of my work adheres to more traditional notions of fashion photography. Recently, I have returned to my personal practices a bit more, and I'm working on several of my own projects as well. Look out for them!


K: Who would be the fashion photographers you love or who would inspire you?

C. E.: I am partial to photographers whose photographs use fashion and not the other way around, if that makes any sense. People like Jason Evans and Roe Ethridge, and some younger photographers like Jamie Hawkesworth and Tyrone Lebon, for example.

K: You shot a story for us, what was the brief given to you and what is the concept behind those photographs?

C. E.: The brief was wonderfully free! The idea was to feature the criss-cross pieces and eye evil pattern pieces from the fall collection, and that was about as specific as the brief got. I gathered materials that had angular lines similar to the criss cross looks and that also could have a conceptual wink to idea of an eyeball print. Mirrors, TVs, glass plates… The rest I left up to the spontaneity of the shoot. I used Ataui Deng, who is overflowing with playfulness and positive energy, so we just had a lot of fun together. She has great skin and no hair, so it was a refreshingly personal shoot - no hair, no make up, no stylist, just me and her goofing around in my studio!

K: Models are really key in your work. Do you rather like a model with a big personality or a beautiful face and body?

C. E.: I can go both ways. Beauty aside, if someone has a really compelling face or body, I'm there no matter how boring he or she is. Like I said, I'm a material girl, I'm not a photojournalist. Still, it is a partnership, and it's important for the model to give something back to the camera. Most of what makes a compelling face or body is how its owner uses it.


K: Let's talk technical now, do you use the same equipment for most of your shoots or do you like to try and experiment as well?

C. E.: I am always experimenting with my imagery, of course, so whatever tools I need to create the image at hand, those are the tools I'm using. You can do a lot with a decent camera and one or two lights, but sometimes you need something else.

K: What is a perfect fashion image for you?

C. E.: A perfect fashion photograph is convincing. I better believe it!