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Chris Engman
at Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle, Washington
Review by Suzanne Beal

The structures Chris Engman builds in the desert of east Washington translate into striking photographs that highlight the temporary nature of all things.

Photographer Chris Engman has zero interest in capturing time. On the contrary, his color photographs reveal temporality by shifting the viewer’s gaze away from the often-mundane object at the center of the frame and towards peripheral shadows, changing climates and fluctuations in light.  In “Dust to Dust” Engman uses images of constructed (and deconstructed) environments to highlight the temporary nature of all things. “Life,” says Engman “is one of those things that just doesn’t stay still.”

Engman isn’t content to stay behind the lens. His images are often the end result of labor-intensive architectural projects painstakingly planned out, built and documented while alone in the middle of the desert. In preparation, Engman envisions every aspect of the project from beginning to end, creating a highly detailed shooting schedule with notes on the position of the sun and the direction of the camera. In addition to food, camping equipment, sunblock, and a lot of water, Engman hauls his camera equipment, materials such as rope, plywood and cinderblocks, and the tools necessary to build his structure on site. “Once I’m out there I have to make do with what I’ve got.”   

For “Equivalence” Engman constructed and raised an upright plywood frame consisting of thirteen squares and two triangles in the middle of the Eastern Washington desert. He created a single photograph of the structure using an 8 x 10” camera, then returned to Seattle to divide the image into fifteen larger digital prints that he attached to the framework when he returned to the site a month later. The final image shows fluffy white clouds floating lazily through Engman’s solid structure.  At first glance nothing seems amiss, but further examination reveals out of place shadows, clouds drifting in opposing directions, and other tell-tale signs of manipulation - all strategically left in by the artist. “It’s important for me to leave traces of the process so that information is there for the viewer,” Engman explains.  “My constructions are not sculptures in the traditional sense. They’re just vehicles to reveal a process that is focused on experiencing time and understanding what photographs do – or don’t do - to time.”

Engman’s images foster a hyper-awareness of the laws that govern nature even as he aims his camera at manmade structures in urban settings. For “Rotation” he photographed a single ladder sixteen times in an effort to track the sun as it traversed the sky. By strategically positioning himself around the ladder he also conveyed the earth’s revolutions. The result is a series of images in which the angle of the shadow made between the ladder, the camera and the sun remains eerily the same. Ironically, by creating an impression of time standing still Engman leaves viewers with a greater understanding of how fleeting it really is. “It’s one thing to use a photograph to create an illusion,” says Engman, “it’s another to realize that all photographs are illusory.”

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