For nearly a decade, Charlie Engman’s mother has willingly, sometimes hesitantly, experimented in front of his camera. She has donned makeup, stylized hair, high-fashion clothing—or a complete lack thereof—for his pictures and films, in the way that many mothers selflessly offer themselves up to their children so that they do not go without. However, this particular relationship between mother and son is not nearly so clearly defined. In the case of the quasi-collaborative, long-standing photographic project simply titled Mom, Engman’s mother has stepped into the role of muse and mannequin, coming out as stranger on the other side—stranger because Engman does not always recognize who he sees dancing, shuffling, and posing before his lens. She is his mother, but images reveal she is “more, more, more.”
The Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based Engman is a highly sought-after photographer, although not initially by his own ambition. Trained originally as a movement artist, Engman arrived at picture-taking as a form of visual notation. His images capture the sculptural potential of an action, as a sleeve, collar, elbow, or freckle is caught in the moment of becoming something other than itself. His singular sensibility has produced intrigue and demand—experimental publications, mainstream magazines, and fashion brands alike have commissioned and published his work. For the most part, Engman’s mother does not appear in these editorial spreads and campaigns. She shows up in the after-hour images, once an official shoot has wound down. She may, from time to time, try on the same clothing that has been pulled for someone younger and tighter, someone editors and brands see as more current, more sellable. But his pictures of her not only edge on fashion, they could also be seen as reworking industry norms. Engman’s mother sells the unsettling, and she’s good at it. Some of the most familiar yet foreign pictures are played out during mother-and-son road trips—her barely dressed body drifting through expansive fields, or stumbling along rolling hills that recall images by Stephen Shore or William Eggleston. Through Engman’s lens we observe a middle-aged, middle-American woman engaging the possibilities of dress, which momentarily unfix her from motherhood and unload her of our cultural baggage.
Without a doubt, Mom is born of a filial connection. But over the years it has evolved into a prodigious body of work that disentangles itself from this singular bond between two specific people to speak about the mother/son relationship more generally, exploring notions of identity and power relationships, including those between photographer and subject. Asked to reflect on their collaboration, Engman’s mother replies, “I don’t think he’s seeing me. I don’t think he’s telling a story about his mom. Even someone you think you see, like your mother, is actually material for looking at the world in a new way.” —Rui Mateus Amaral
Excerpted from Mother, is that you?, a text written on the occasion of Charlie Engman’s first solo exhibition. This premiere presentation at Scrap Metal reveals the breadth of Mom through various modes of photographic representation, including framed and floating images, murals, sculpture, as well as archival materials. Broadening the project’s reach, four of Engman’s photographs will be presented in public space on billboards at Dupont and Davenport, a context historically used for advertising.