This interview was originally published on May 4, 2010, from Winking at a Girl in the Dark.
Over the last two decades, Chris Engles has had the good fortune to be involved in some pretty cool stuff. A 20-year veteran of public radio, Chris has worked on such NPR favorites as Cartalk, The World, Morning Edition, The Connection and Living on Earth. He also wrote, directed, edited, and produced his own feature film, “This Town,” which premiered at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA, and was an official selection of the New York International Independent Film Festival. Along the way, Chris started exploring still photography as an extension of his work as a filmmaker. I sat down with Chris to discuss his latest project, “Homage To The Pin Up Girl.”
CM: How did art first inspire you as a child or young adult?
CE: I was raised in a musical household – my father was a pianist. He and my mother are of the World War II Generation, so I grew up hearing a lot of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Bill Evans, Kurt Weill, all of the American musicals – the entire American Songbook. Then I heard The Beatles, and I was absolutely intrigued by what I was hearing. The icing on the cake was having the Beatles’ Producer George Martin speak at my graduation.
CM: What mediums do you work in and how did you come to find your comfort and creativity there?
CE: Music is my first love – or I suppose you could say “sound” (I worked in public radio for 15 years as a Technical Director for most of the shows that are produced in the Boston area). But I also love visuals. I drew a lot as a kid and at one point wanted to be an architect.
When I listen to music I always have movies running in my head – not entire films, but scenes, driven by the music. Once the desktop revolution arrived and one was able to cut video on the computer I was in heaven and went about making my short films, getting them out of my head and onto a screen. The experience was so satisfying I subsequently wrote, directed and produced a feature film, which I had no business doing since I was essentially untrained. Despite that fact, it was a fantastic experience (I have good people). In an effort to learn more about the craft I took up still photography, hoping to hone my “eye” and it quickly surpassed the film work in terms of its scale and immediacy. Now I’m marrying all 3 – sound, story, and image – in a series of photo/audio portraits.
CM: Can you talk about your formal training, if any?
CE: The requisite music lessons as a child (piano, trumpet, guitar), Berklee School of Music and various internships and workshops with world-class photographers such as Karin Rosenthal and Michel Tcherevkoff.
CM: How about your informal training?
CE: I’m pretty good under fire – I “show up” really well. Put me in a situation, give me the basics, and I deliver consistently enough that I am allowed to stick around and build on the experience.
CM: What is your process or does it vary?
CE: In terms of the most recent photo project – Homage to the Pin Up Girl – I had no process when I started. I just was interested in shooting a single image for the sake of the experience. But once the image got out and it was clear that there was enough interest to warrant an entire series I had to decide on a process that would yield consistent results. But each time we shot I learned a bit more and the process evolved over time. Despite that fact, the pictures work well as a series, as I had a great crew with me – several sets of eyes always help – not to mention fantastic talent in front of the camera.
CM: What are some of the stumbling blocks you have faced as an artist?
CE: At this moment I feel as though I’m at the most fertile, creative point in my life. I have multiple projects running through my head at any given moment – my one stumbling block is lack of cash to execute them all.
CM: How do you think the work of a visual artist differs from the work of other artists, such as musicians/writers, etc.?
CE: I recently had a conversation with a choreographer friend who described her process of creating dance. I had no idea what a painstaking process it was in terms of how long it takes for the final product to coalesce – as opposed to say, the possibility of a week or two to come up with a theme for an image, gather your crew and talent, shoot and post in Photoshop. On the other hand, making a feature film can easily eat ten years of your life. I’m curious as to what painters think about – particularly abstract painters. That would be an interesting universe to explore.
CM: Which finished piece from your portfolio is the one that makes you feel most proud or satisfied and why?
CE: My current series, “Homage to the Pin Up Girl,” is generating a lot of positive response from people so I’m pretty happy about that.
CM: What was the inspiration behind “Homage to the Pin Up Girl?”
CE: I was dating a woman who collected vintage pin up art – she had it all over the house. Over time I gained an appreciation of it and subsequently had an idea for an image that I thought she would be perfect for. She was a bit shy about it, but like the movies in my mind from 20 years ago, I wanted to get it out of my head. So I approached a dancer acquaintance about posing for the image and we were off to the races.
CM: What are you working on now?
CE: I’m thinking about another series of pin up images – possibly a 70’s car theme. I have a series of black & white nudes in landscapes, which I would like publish as a book. I’m producing a series of photo/audio portraits that are available to PBS stations, and I’m collaborating with a former NPR colleague on a pilot for a radio show. I also have a feature-length script that needs some attention. Speaking of film – the movie I worked on last year (which won the Boston 48 Hour Film Festival) has been selected to screen at the Cannes Film Festival this month. We’re all pretty buzzed about that one!
CM: Can you talk a bit about what keeps you committed to your art, even when times get tough?
CE: Being creative is the only thing I get lost in – that has moments of effortlessness. That’s what makes life worth living.
CM: If you were not a visual artist, what would you be doing?
CE: Good question… I like building things. My mother’s father was a cabinetmaker. My relatives in Italy design and build organs. Perhaps I could get an apprenticeship over there. That would be a tough life… (He smiles.)
CM: What advice would you give to a new artist, fresh out of school?
CE: I’m not sure I’m qualified to be handing out professional advice, except to say that working with others – as opposed to working alone – usually yields better results than you could imagine – so keep an open mind.
CM: If you could sum up what your art is meant to convey in three words, what would those three words be?
CE: I Like Girls.
Honestly, I don’t feel that it’s meant to convey anything specific. What I can tell you is that I derive an immense amount of pleasure from creating these images, and the only thing that eclipses that pleasure is when a connection is made with the audience.
Due to popular demand, “Homage to the Pin Up Girl,” will be held over at its present exhibition space at the Karma Lounge for the entire month of MAY! The Karma Lounge is located at 51 1st Avenue, New York, NY 10003-9414. Be sure to check it out and please spread the word.
For press, please contact Chris Engles directly via his website at www.chrisenglesphoto.com.