© Anders Petersen
The cover image of From Back Home depicts Anders Petersen's mother, and the first shot inside the book shows a baby being lifted out of the womb. It's an appropriately intimate start to a very personal project by Petersen and his friend and fellow photographer, JH Engstrom, in which they pay tribute to the Varmlands region in their Swedish homeland. 'Maybe you can't really go home,' writes Engstrom in his short introduction. 'But this is where I'm from. These images pay homage to the people and landscapes that are my origins.'
Petersen is internationally famed for his 'stream-of-consciousness' approach, and cemented his reputation with the 1978 publication of the still highly sought after Cafe Lehmitz, a warts-and-all look at a raffish bar in Hamburg's infamous Reeperbahn district. Engstrom, who is nearly 30 years his junior, has also won international acclaim with a similarly loose-form method, and his 2004 book Trying to Dance was shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse Prize.
The two men got to know each other back in the 1990s, when Engstrom assisted Petersen and they realised their shared geography. They had always laughed about doing a project on Varmlands but it became a serious proposition in 2007 when the Varmlands Museum offered to help them do it for real. The result is From Back Home, which won the Rencontres d'Arles Book Award this summer.
Mix and match
The photographers worked separately for the most part - Engstrom says they did shoot together one day, but they kept stopping for beer and laughing. But although they worked apart, and only vaguely discussed their plans before starting, they had complete confidence in each other, he says. 'Of course we talked about it a little bit, but not in any detail. We both know each other so well that we knew what the other would do.'
The two men follow a strand in Swedish photography pioneered by the late, great Christer Stromholm, and take a highly personalised approach. For this latest collaborative project they selected images that convey a very subjective sense of home and place. In fact, both of them say, the images are so personal that they are a kind of emotional self-portrait. 'I'm publishing something of myself, my memories and dreams,' says Petersen. 'When you've been influenced so much by something, it's part of you.'
'I didn't even have to think about (what to shoot), it just came to me,' adds Engstrom. 'This place is so close to me, I saw pictures everywhere. I tried to photograph what I feel, and what I remember - that's what these pictures represent to me.'
Each followed the contours of his own memory, mixing portraits of friends and family with shots of strangers representative of people from their pasts. Engstrom, for example, shows several groups of teenagers - different to the adolescents he knew at the same age but still reminiscent of them. 'Even if there's no place to go, they have to go out,' he says. 'That's how it is with teenagers, that's how it was with me.'
Petersen, meanwhile, photographed midsummer celebrations in forests where he once partied, but he also showed the lonely isolation that undercut his past. 'I wanted to show Varmlands in a good light because I have good memories of it, but I also felt a throb of loneliness when I was there,' he says. 'I was 12 when we moved to Varmlands and, coming from Stockholm, I had an accent that made people think I thought I was better than them. Of course I didn't, but I had to fight a lot. It was ok - there were very strong people influencing me in a good way, so I could stand it. But it was there.'
The intensity is evident in his work. Shot in stark black-and-white, the images are strong, brutal even, as Galerie Vu puts it. And if they're raw in the book, they are doubly so in the Vu exhibition in Paris, in which larger, starker prints are hung edge-to-edge over entire walls.
Engstrom, by contrast, mixes colour and monochrome, recreating the cosily jumbled feel of a family photo album in the book, and a sense of lost family photographs in the exhibition, with modestly sized prints in plain wood frames. 'I choose the format to suit the subject. I want to be able to photograph even if I'm doing something where I can't take a big, large format camera,' he says. 'I'm interested in the whole history of photography, I can appreciate large format photography where it took a day to set everything up, but I also like snapshots. I don't care as long as the result speaks to me. And I like the energy when you mix them.'
His images are also less claustrophobic than Petersen's - he steps back to take some distance shots, and even took some handsome aerial shots that give a quasi-scientific overview of the landscape. But the difference between the two photographers is clearest in the way they photograph dance meets. Engstrom's images show older couples closely embracing, their bodies melded into place after years together, while Petersen's images include a passionate shot of an older couple kissing.
'We're different people, from different generations, so we have different approaches,' says Petersen. 'JH used much more symbolism in his work; I'm closer to people. In my images you can see I'm crying out for contact with people.'
And despite the differences, it's this longing that binds them - the longing for, and the lack of, contact. Petersen writes of 'little hard memories of sad and lonely times', while Engstrom has summed up his entire oeuvre as a sense of loneliness, his and other people's.
'Some of the portraits in colour are quite lonely, so I wanted to shoot the dances to show some warmth, to have that love,' he says. 'But shooting them was a strange experience. Everyone was laughing and dancing and I was on my own, photographing. I was totally focused on the photography, then I looked at myself and I felt like such an idiot.'
'Our work isn't similar, not at all, but at the same time there is the same kind of photography running through it,' says Petersen. 'There is something in all this linking us. We're both kind of scared, afraid. But we're not afraid of being afraid.'
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