06/29/2015 08:28 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

For Years, Photographer Charlie Engman Has Been Taking Photos Of An Unlikely Muse -- His Mother


We often assume that most people who take photos of their mother do so under specific circumstances: family vacations, celebratory occasions, or a candid selfie with mom, to name a few. So we were surprised to encounter the beautiful and jarring portraits Charlie Engman captured of his mother and muse, Kathleen McCain Engman.

Before her son's lens, Kathleen transforms into a magnetic force, more alien vision than maternal figure. Her blunt orange hair, confrontational gaze and sculptural poses generate an intoxicating depiction, one unlike most family portraits we encounter.


"When I was first getting excited about photography and thinking about it on its own terms, I took pictures of everything," Chicago-born Engman explained to The Huffington Post. "Everything was visually interesting. You're like a baby, chewing on things and deciding what is delicious and what is painful and what is hard and what is soft."

Engman didn't have any grand epiphany alerting him to the hidden potential looming inside his own home. He initially started taking pictures of his mother while living at home after college graduation, mostly because he could. "My mother was just an available subject, so I took a lot of pictures of her," he said. "At the time I didn't really think a lot about it. She was there, so I was using it."

Shortly after, however, Engman noticed something in the photographs he could not shake off. "There was something about those images that was kind of itchy for me. Obviously my mother is someone familiar to me; she's someone I've been engaging with my whole life. But in these images I sort of stopped being able to recognize her. She transformed in a way that confused and intrigued me. The image had a life of its own, in a way."


Engman has now been photographing his mother for years, both for fashion editorials and personal projects. Whether posing in avant-garde couture or partially nude, Kathleen gives off the impression she is unshakeable with confidence. "She's really game," said Engman. "It's really hard to make her uncomfortable. She knew in this interaction we were having there was a mutual level of respect or understanding. So even if I was asking her for things that were rather extreme or pushed some boundaries of modesty or whatever, she knew me. She knows me."

Charlie and Kathleen have a different foundational relationship than most photographer-subject duos, and the distinction affects their creative process respectively. "With a mother-son relationship there are very specific dynamics at play that are kind of reversed when someone becomes a subject, but she’s also a very active participant," Engman told It's Nice That. "She does what I ask her to do but she also suggests a lot and she pushes back when she feels like things aren’t working."

While Engman tries not to categorize his work as addressing a singular issue, he's well aware of the importance of adding to and diversifying the visual lexicon of female beauty. "You look at mainstream imagery and the representation of females, and there is, at least in the Western world, a certain code of beauty and a certain expectation. And so of course if you are photographing a woman of a certain age you think of what that means in a wider social context. Family too, has a lot of connotations and associations that have been established. These are things I take into consideration, that inform the work to a certain extent. But it's the same as if I took a photograph of garbage on the street, that also has some baggage about commerce and use and misuse."


Both Engman and his mother have received widespread praise for their unusual family collaboration. As a result, Kathleen was recruited to star in a television commercial with Courtney Love. He's also received criticism, with some of his mother's friends calling the work exploitative. However, the most widespread reaction according to Engman is one of pure surprise.

"The main reaction I get from people is, 'I could never do that,' or, 'How are you okay with that?' That's always kind of been funny to me. I'm not going for a shock factor, that's not my motive at all. I think our comfort level with each other has always been extremely high, and also our comfort level with ourselves. Obviously you only have the family that you have, and that's the lens that you see the world through, so it's been really interesting to watch how people react."

As for Kathleen's perspective, she seems far too busy for your reservations. When Engman asked for her perspective on his practice during an interview in Editorial, she responded: "I think you’re a rebel, I have to poop."

Future goals, people.


  • “This is an image that changed everything because, for me, it crystallised the spirit of revolt. The uprising in Tiananmen Square was one of the most moving events I’ve witnessed. It was a tragedy to see unarmed young people shot down in cold blood. It was a movement for freedom of expression, for basic rights, and against the outrage of official corruption. It ended badly, a stain on the reputation of a great country. The facts should not be denied, but discussed, so that people can move on. A lot of things were misreported on both sides. A lot of outside actors were involved that may have worsened the situation for the students and their protest. I want this photograph to be available to people for whom this is an important memory. It symbolises the courage of the time. What it doesn’t show is the bloodshed. I am best known for the image of the tank man. That is called an ‘iconic’ image, but what such images sometimes obscure, with the passing of time, is all the other pictures that lend explanatory power to the story. I’m interested in history, and this landmark event changed my life.” -- Stuart Franklin (Beijing, 1989)
  • “I met Belinda and Guillermina when they were five years old. They were usually fluttering about while I was photographing their grandmother's animals for my project On the Sixth Day. I'd always shoo them away from the frame until, one day, I turned my attention towards them. That’s when I made this image -- a photograph that marks the beginning of what turned out to be being a long journey with them.” -- Alessandra Sanguinetti (2015)
  • “The ball bounced. I was home again, in Belfast. That period was a turning point -- many balls in the air, the peace process starting and stopping. It was the start of a journey back home.” -- Donovan Wylie (Ireland, 1999)
  • “The picture that changed everything? When I fell in love with Sabine and she taught me how to dance. After that moment, I stopped taking pictures to prove anything or to be daring. After that moment, I started taking pictures out of love and curiosity. After that moment, I started dancing. Sabine had put on lipstick, high heels and a polka-dot dress. It’s was the christening of her sister’s first baby. ‘Peqqeraava? Am I beautiful?’ Sabine asked. She lifted her skirt, revealing her star panties and a pair of laddered tights. ‘Lorunaraalid. You’re wonderful.’ I replied, grabbing hold of her and starting to dance. I’ve often watched Sabine dance at the village hall without wanting to join in. But now that we’re alone in her uncle’s house, I surrender to both the dance and Sabine. We danced across tables, chairs and mattresses. Wilder and wilder. Through the open window we can hear the church bells chime but Sabine insists: ‘Aamma, aamma, qilinnermud ilinniardiiatsiikkid!’ (‘More, more. Let me teach you how to dance!’)” -- Jacob Aue Sobol (Greenland, 2001)
  • “In 1982 I bought the newly released Makina Plaubel 55mm fixed-lens camera. With this shift from 35mm to 6 x 7, I also changed from black and white to colour. Later that year, I started my project on New Brighton called The Last Resort. However, the first project I shot in colour was composed of urban scenes from Liverpool. This image was on the second roll of film. It’s the first good photo I made in this new chapter of my work.” -- Martin Parr (Liverpool, 1984)
  • “This is a photograph from my project East 100th Street. In 1966, I began to document the neighborhood in Spanish Harlem known as ‘El Barrio.’ At first, I met with the local citizens’ committee, Metro North, to obtain their permission to produce a document that would serve as a calling card, to be presented to local politicians, prospective business investors, and the mayor. The community workers took me around to meet and observe people living in abysmal housing. I witnessed people working together to improve lives and create a place of peace, power, and pride. At that point in American history, we were sending rockets to the moon and waging a futile war in Vietnam. I felt the need to explore the space of our inner cities and document both the problems and the potential there. I photographed the people of East 100th Street and their environment in an open ‘eye to eye’ relationship, using a large bellows camera with its dark focusing cloth. I carried a heavy tripod and a powerful strobe light along with a portfolio of pictures taken in the community. As I stood before the subjects, the physical presence of the classic camera lent a certain respect to the act of photography, placing me in the picture itself.” -- Bruce Davidson (New York City, 1968)
  • “My wife Ann and I had been digging during the day, transplanting lilies from the front of this abandoned farmhouse back down the road to where we live. We finished. She was tired and laid in the grass. I took a picture. The house is now gone. The walnut trees have been bulldozed and burned. I saw this picture the other day for the first time in years and realized how photographing life within a hundred yards of my front porch had helped me focus on everything I cared about.” -- Larry Towell (Ontario, 1997)
  • “This image has always sparked a memory of reflection for me. It was the first time I felt a subject was using me to make the photograph they wanted so that their message could get out. It was taken in Masaya, Nicaragua just before the popular insurrection against the Somoza dictatorship took hold. The Indigenous community used these traditional dance masks to protect their identity. They were practicing future attacks with homemade contact bombs. They simply wanted the world to know. The surprise for me was that it was used on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, my first ever in the media. I remain ambivalent about the performative in photography. I have never thought of myself as a portraitist, and still prefer to make connections through a process of immersion.” -- Susan Meiselas (Nicaragua, 1981)
  • “I had wanted to use flash for a long time, but it took me years to try it. I don’t like to do things differently than the way I know how to do them. That’s not because I don’t like change -- I just trust what I know. But I always loved film noir, and I always loved shadows. So in 1980, I shot like 600 rolls of film in the streets of New York and developed them all in one fell swoop in my bathroom. I looked at what I had and found that there was nothing good. Nothing. It was all shit because I couldn't separate the foreground from the background. I said to myself, ‘Bruce, you gotta start using flash.’ So I tried it, and immediately, making pictures started to feel like a fun game. I was trying things, playing and experimenting. This was the first picture I ever took with a flash that I felt really good about. It marks the beginning of something simple, but something that changed my life as a photographer.” -- Bruce Gilden (New York City, 1981)
  • “The sad, vibrant, tragic, beguiling country of Haiti has been key to my photography. After reading Graham Greene’s The Comedians -- a novel set in Haiti that both fascinated and scared me -- I made my first trip in 1975. But, photographing in black and white, I soon realized that something was missing: I wasn’t capturing a sense of the searing light and the heat -- physical and, perhaps, metaphysical -- of this country, so different than the grey-brown reticence of New England, where I grew up. I wasn’t dealing with the emotional intensity of my experience of this vivid and troubled land. So, when I returned to Haiti four years later, I decided to work in color. As I wandered through the porticos of downtown Port au Prince in 1979, I remember spotting this man with a bouquet of bulrushes -- strikingly outlined against a vibrant red wall -- as a second man, in shadow, rushed by. I took the photograph and slowly began to realize it was time to leave black and white behind.” -- Alex Webb (Port au Prince, 1979)