October 16, 2011

Past Tense: Michael Ackerman's Fiction

Most often we take our certainties for granted. Places or names appear to us as comprehensible, being exactly what they are and no less. A broader sense of the world is held together by that fundamental assumption, shading the contours of an unchanging landscape where dark still opposes light, but is never equal to it, where there is no likely slippage between who you are and the image you have of yourself. All of this is not exactly a lie, it’s just not the world we fully belong to or are capable of making. The illusions we build our lives on are fragile and grasped with too much force they shatter.

If Fiction is a perfectly apt title for this body of work by Michael Ackerman it is because in refusing one narrative he finds others just as troubling. His is a world of forgetting (and conversely, a world where forgetting is impossible), of questions that cannot be answered, hungers that cannot be satisfied. He charts a near hallucinogenic passage through some blasted, seemingly post-historical nightscape; everything is received at the most piercing frequency, nerves raw, attention pulled in every direction. Here there are no sure coordinates by which to navigate, no anchor save for the act of photography itself – notations on the void.

The images fall into an associative and distinctly non-linear rhythm that carries the momentum of the book forward, a densely rendered stream of consciousness building upon itself, spreading out, revealing layers, currents of meaning. Its structure is actually quite elaborate, a trademark of Ackerman’s that might well be unconvincing in lesser hands. He is all the while unwavering in his determination to cross into (or out of) some desolate territory of the soul, and although not necessarily distant, these are definitely states of awareness on the outer edges of our familiar existence, all those things from which we ordinarily seek shelter, that threaten the comfortable reserve we put between ourselves and the world for fear of being overwhelmed by memories too barbed to handle, or by the fevered pursuit of oblivion, pleasure and despair intertwined, the crashingly sensate. Even the light, when we find it, is a blinding absence, and whatever it touches is scorched beyond recognition, leaving only a trace of some encounter that has been and gone. Everything here exists emphatically in the past tense, now becoming then, and the future never happens, because we can only live it through the lens of the past – and of the camera.

For all its ostensible roughness, there is an insistent purity to Ackerman’s photographic vision, the dark really is dark and the light is just another kind of emptiness, no less cruel. Everything is haunted, tragic – and it is, convincingly so. This happens in the materiality of his pictures, which in this case is not just a stylistic choice, but also a set of values inseparable from their meaning. In many ways, Fiction is an important milestone in Ackerman’s continuing evolution as a photographer. It develops on the immediate observational context of his earlier pictures, but here they are no longer as grounded, either spatially or psychologically. His encounter with the world is shaped by the need he has to articulate it in photographs, leaving a core of determined expressiveness, where the feeling of a picture, its emotional affect, counts for more than anything. The work now depends wholly on the sort of resonant atmosphere he manages to create, a formal consistency that subsumes all of Ackerman’s experiences into a single thread, winding together the events of his life with the particularity of his own response to them – telling the story is a manifestation of the story itself.

There is an inherent creative danger, though, in the sort of landscape that Ackerman has claimed for his own. At any time he might fall into a theatrical despair that makes little more than a fetish of the human struggle, with no reflection at all on what exactly that might be, besides a stagey backdrop for the angst-ridden demimonde – life in the raw. Truthfully, Ackerman’s is hardly a vision broad in scope; some will no doubt even find it hollow romanticism. But his sustained pursuit of a personal ideal is considerably more than the sum of its parts, and the cumulative effect of his photography is one that seems to offer genuine insight about the times in which we live.

More than that, there is a pervasive sense of historical resonance to this work, the way a charged past seeps into our understanding of a place, and it is in this context that Ackerman’s deeply felt style makes the most sense. It was conflict that drew the map of Europe, terrible loss and blood-shed. In his nocturnal wanderings Ackerman uses his own peeled sensibility like a gauge for past tragedy and finds it everywhere, the wind-blown streets, the emptied landscapes and solitary figures blurring into the dark – infected by history. This awareness is what crystallises his own existential drama; the sense of a horizon wider than just his inner turmoil and the always hectic urge to make pictures, the need to connect with what is happening around him.

This is not to say of course that the value of Ackerman’s work is to be found only in tracing the emotional overlap of past and present, because clearly it stands on its own terms as something fully realised. It is actually the world that fits his vision and not the other way around. He shows that our past is nearly always tragic, just because it is past and so far beyond where we can reach. The immediacy of Ackerman’s own feeling is projected from the images; we can share in it or at least occupy a roughly comparable space for the duration of our viewing. He is not just showing a moment, but wants us to exist within it as he did and his willingness to collapse those boundaries is ultimately what makes this work such a rewarding experience.

You'll find more on the Agence Vu website, but really the best thing is try to get a copy of the book.