July 13, 2009

The Last Places: Michael Ackerman’s End Time City



Some places have been photographed so much that they effectively become invisible, blind-spots in our cultural lexicon and in photography’s repertoire; whatever seemed so profound at first is gradually eroded by familiarity, by a relentless attention in images. Benares (or Varanasi, if you prefer) is one such place, unique in both the staggering depth of its history and the crassness of how it has, at times, been portrayed. It seems to be the nature of the medium – in so far as we can think of photography as a coherent entity – that it easily facilitates the production of such archetypes, shorthand forms coming to be understood as a substitute for properly considered experience – indeed for consideration itself.

So it takes a photographer of some originality, or at least of daring, to see a place as if for the first time, to see it stripped of casual assumptions, rendered all but unrecognisable, yet with its own particular mystery intact – to catch something, some presence, from the atmosphere and Michael Ackerman’s photographs of Benares in End Time City do just that, as frail glimmers from an eternity we cannot touch, in this shell of a place, its broken lines devouring light, a ghost city, built on shadows and ash – the last place, or perhaps the first. His work in this series is a delicate balancing act, between incoherence and the blurred recognition of some other, all but intangible truth – each picture should somehow be a failure, but never is; the varying choice of formats too (squares, rectangles and even panoramic) might in less capable hands suggest an aesthetically fatal indecision, but again it never does. In fact, they represent a fundamentally unified, if disparate seeming vision, and not just of the place, but of all that photography can say about it (or what it cannot). His pictures reflect the multiple aspects of a place: this city is a labyrinth and you can lose yourself in its haunting depths, its contingent geography.

His pictures are fragments of near disappearance, of a negative energy, their uncertain contours the immateriality of place and of flesh, tracing that last dim coil of breath as it leaves the body, staining the air. Each photograph carries something phantasmagorical from the city, something barely seen, but apprehended with the uncommon sensitivity of a photographer dedicated not only to the visible fact, but to the myth-making of how a deeper historical time can suddenly rupture the habituated surfaces of everyday reality. Perhaps this is what brought Ackerman to India in the first place, the fact that it seemed more immediately permeable to the unseen realms of experience or more accepting of them, that it was a place of deep time and consequently if he was to explore all those accumulated layers he might find some clue, some thread to lead deeply into the mystery, to the heart of the labyrinth, groping blindly for whatever truth he might find there – or whatever else, in the darkness, in his own shadow.

Looking at these pictures it becomes clear that this is not really a view of a particular city, with particular traditions and familiar twists of spatial logic. In fact, they give the distinct impression that this is not a “city” at all, at least not in any predictable sense, but rather that it is a set of possibilities, of encounters that move between the real and the imagined, perversely offering illumination from the half-light of decay, from places where no light can touch. It will never appear the same way twice, but is re-formed moment to moment and Ackerman seems repeatedly drawn to these mutable places, first in New York, the darker fringes of an urban dream-time and now in Poland, right on the edge of Europe – the edge of history. But here India stands between them, altogether immovable, in another kind of consciousness where metaphor can become reality, a living fact, which may, of course, sound just as hopelessly “exotic” as anything else, but seems decidedly less so if we consider the India Ackerman is searching for (and I would say actually finds) is a place that never accepted the compromise of modernity, the narrow burdens of rational experience, but where reality itself is in endless flux.

What most reveals the scope of the work, however, is to see it in book form, where all the subtle connections between the images, their dissonant inner narrative, comes to the fore and if the waking dream that is Ackerman’s time in India, his journey through the imagined territory of the city and its environs, builds itself on certain archetypal forms it is only because these are the well-springs of human culture – gestures of devotion, the abjectness of death, all the architecture of our lives. This is, in fact, the archetypal city, deep in memory and if his exploration of it is actually quite conventional in terms of how the book is structured, along the dark warren of streets to the cremation grounds that line the river’s edge at the furthest reaches of the city, his movements play at the balance between inward and outward, between what he encounters and what he does not – the near misses of pursuit, that hint of something unseen around the next corner, of being lead onward by some force.

Then Ackerman finds himself, finally, as a witness and an interloper at the cremations that have made Benares such a popular spectacle. Yet his pictures are well judged, in harmony with the public nature of the occasion, the mysterious transformation of forms that it involves, that material (or bodily) release – the kind of alchemy that is, in many ways, a metaphorical double for the photographic process itself. There can be little doubt that Ackerman’s pictures are attuned to this insubstantial trace of human life-in-death, the whole continuum of ritual it implies, and a visual archaeology touching regions that are all too often obscured by more “developed” cultural norms, the resolute factuality of death. So, what he arrives at in this (photographic) city is a very real point of uncertainty between what is present and what is a living past – perhaps this is, after all, a city at the end of time.