Under most circumstances, the desert does not seem like an ideal working atmosphere. If not for the hot, dry, and desolate environment, then certainly for the lack of cell-phone reception and Internet connectivity.
For photographer Chris Engman, however, it's perfect. For the past two and half years, a desert in eastern Washington state has served as the 28-year-old's “empty canvas” on which he constructs sets that appear to belong to some alternate reality, then photographs them. “The place,” Engman says, “has a psychologically charged but neutral energy, like an unformed dream.”
Be it a photograph of a two-sided empty house or of a tree “growing” in the desert, his final images have an otherworldly quality that beg for a closer look. While sharing the same desert backdrop, Engman's work takes on a variety of forms. One of the most interesting techniques he employs is photographing large photographic fiber-matte prints within his final image–or, in short, prints within a print.
Preparing for a photo shoot in the “giant outdoor studio” is where the most labor-intensive part of his work occurs. Even before the actual trip, it can take Engman several weeks to build his sets. Then, he explains, “I'll go on a scouting trip to find the location for a shot and return to the site with a few friends. We spend anywhere from a day to a week on the site–camping, building, waiting for weather, and shooting.” And while he admits that with “unfortunate frequency” an idea for a shoot goes awry, he is quick to add that “it always comes out in the end.”
Using a Toyo 4×5 camera from the 1970s and Ilford 100 Delta black-and-white film, Engman first photographs the image that will appear as a print within the final output. If the initial print needs to match up with the background of the final output, he leaves markers in the desert to indicate where to return for the second shot.
He develops the images on Ilford Multi-grade IV fiber-matte paper at various sizes–depending on what's desired for a particular project. “Determining the final size of the print within a print is always a good challenge,” Engman says. “It usually requires including a real object within the first shoot, which I take with me and can use afterwards like a tape measure.”
After the prints have been developed, Engman returns to the desert to shoot the final image. He sets up the initial prints within the frame, building any additional structures needed to support them. Often the challenge here is in getting the prints to withstand the wind or other elements and keeping the supporting structures hidden.
To capture the final image, Engman again turns to his Toyo 4×5 and for now, shoots film–the same Ilford film for black-and-white and Kodak Porta 160NC for color prints. “I'll get a digital back when the price goes down,” he says.
Upon returning from his trips, Engman scans his film with an Imacon Flextight Precision II in a lab at the University of Washington, which he has access to in exchange for his work as a photography lab monitor once a week. Then, either at the lab or at his home, Engman corrects and manipulates his images using Adobe Photoshop.
For his test proofs as well as for final output, Engman makes use of the university's Epson Stylus Pro 9800. He typically outputs onto Epson semi-matte photo paper with Epson UltraChrome K3 archival ink, and usually produces each image in two sizes–30 x 36 in. in an edition of eight and 40 x 48 in. in a six-edition run.
What you see is what you get
While certain adjustments are made to his images before his final output, it's important to Engman that people understand that the illusions in his photographs are not a result of digital manipulation.
“One of the worst comments I could ever hear would be, 'He just Photoshop'd that.' There is not necessarily anything wrong with heavy digital manipulation,” he says, “but in the case of my work, it is important that I actually made or did the thing you are looking at.”
In his print, The Disappearance, for instance, in which a man is suspended in the air above a body of water, Engman says, “The falling person [in this image] is actually falling. I would have considered it a cheap trick to fake it, plus it was way more fun and interesting to actually do it.”
To communicate this message, Engman makes a point of putting “clues” in each picture to show that the image was not fabricated. This is very apparent in the prints within a print. “[These images] often have wrinkles, the exposure will be different, and the shadows will be in the wrong place,” he says. “If they were digital prints I could make them 'perfect,' but doing so would mean that they wouldn't stand out as photographs within photographs. It's the discrepancies that make them read the way they do.”
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