“I’m sure that I prolong my life through these things.” – Chris Engman
Work by Chris Engman, photos courtesy of Luis De Jesus Los Angeles
Imagine glancing quickly past photographer Chris Engman’s work, Transplant—where the entire image of a tree is constructed using panels of images—while in development. Is it any less real when you are unaware that it is a set of constructed images? Is it more false because the images are broken into smaller, square frames? Can you say, definitely, that the tree exists at all, despite being photographed in one place and constructed in another? These are all questions Engman forces the viewer to confront after his first, quick, absorbing glance, and all questions Engman himself considers in the process of developing his work.
How was it placed there? Carefully. How was it constructed? Meticulously, deliberately and in Engman’s studio, which is half a fine arts stockroom, half a carpenter’s laboratory. The tools of Engman’s trade are even more varied. Before journeying into the depths of defining what is real versus what is realistic, Engman arms himself with hammers, nails, saws, screws, an assortment of power tools and the intent to distort and re-distort what it means to see something. After all, Transplant is not about constructing a tree; it’s about using a camera to see something impossible as ordinary, and vice versa.
His piece, Equivalence, pushes this idea even further. Through the honeycomb structure we might assume we are looking at a cloudy but transposed sky above multiple, impossible perspectives of the actual background. Your view of the landscape through the honeycomb is simultaneously correct and incorrect; an image true-to-life but scrupulously superimposed onto the background.
This contrasts with his work, Three Moments, which portrays three instances of stark reality placed unambiguously within one another: the moment that constructed the first image, the moment that constructed the second, and the third, the moment of the final image. Each view, each perspective and each moment are real time, and finally culminate with the most real of all times, the moment the viewer absorbs the final product.
But as with Engman’s work, The Disappearance, each artifact is deeply saturated in the world around it. Whether it is pieces of wood, the tree itself, a clear blue sky, a horizon line, or a small body of water, Engman is forced to scout his locations thoroughly before work begins. In this case, it is a space less than twelve feet deep and more than fifty feet wide, requiring the construction of two enormous towers over the course of six days in his studio to support the suspended subject in midair.
In the studio and in the world, Engman’s tools are saws and screws and support beams and age and moments and what is real. But they can also be the unreal: squares and shadows which do not occur in nature unless deliberately. And yet, even those are illusions in their own way. In order to achieve some of the squares needed to frame his images, Engman creates painstakingly warped and misshaped boxes and utilized carefully-planned shadows to fulfill the most important illusion of all: the idea that Engman’s photographs are simple manipulations at first glance, instead of carefully-shot answers to questions about how we see the world around us.
Featured image: Chris Engman, Transplant, archival inkjet print, 18” x 24”, edition of 8, 2005
All images courtesy of Luis De Jesus Los Angeles