One of the most mysterious European photographers speaks about his fears of passing time, interest in photographing strangers and advantages of making mistakes
To be able to speak about Michael Ackerman’s works you need to invent a new language. Just what he did himself in the visual sphere, presenting his view of the world “stretched between fact and fiction” in a style which today is described by critics as “enigmatic” and “anguished”. The winner of the Nadar Award for his book “End Time City” (1999) and the International Center of Photography Infinity Award (1998), a real Carlos Castaneda in contemporary photography, Michael is believed to be one of those artists who have had the greatest influence on the younger generation in the last 15 years.
Bleek Magazine: Time is the only thing we cannot control in our life. It drains inevitably and photography can be one of the ways to deceive it. In one of the few interviews you had once you mentioned that your sources of inspiration are the same as everyone else’s, “being alive and being award of death”. Is photography your way of staying alive after the cuckoo keeps silent? Do you feel comfortable in your relations to time?
Michael Ackerman: You mean is photography a way to be immortal? Of course not. But it is a way of keeping. Holding on to some things I care about. It’s a form of preservation. As for the previous question – I don’t feel at all comfortable in relation to time. I’m so obsessed with time passing it that it can be paralyzing. I think about it too much and do too little. I waste a lot of time thinking about it.
Bleek Magazine: Do you feel alive when you photograph? What does it mean for you – to be alive?
Michael Ackerman: When I’m photographing I feel very connected to what I’m photographing so I do feel more alive in that moment. It’s an urgent feeling. When you ask me what it means to be alive do you mean as different from merely existing? Maybe it’s passion, love, a real belief in something that you know to be true. Also being able to learn, to evolve. To not be fixed.
Bleek Magazine: What photography is alive and what is – dead?
Michael Ackerman: Maybe the photography that questions stays alive and the photography that explains is dead?
Bleek Magazine: What is common for people and for places that you choose to photograph?
Michael Ackerman: I think what they have in common is that they are mysterious. Also they are, unpredictable, vulnerable, generous and necessarily imperfect.
Bleek Magazine: Do you understand it from the very first gaze at a stranger that you want to photograph them?
Michael Ackerman: Very often I see somebody and they intrigue me and I wish to photograph them but I don’t know how. I mean how to make it more than just an interesting face. More than a portrait. It takes time, persistence, belief and luck to penetrate the surface. I need the people I photograph to offer me a way in. That’s why I say they are generous and brave. And I also need to be brave to accept what they offer. Often I’m not.
Sometimes I follow somebody who fascinates me or wait for them to get off the metro before I approach them because I’m too shy to approach them in front of other people and also I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. Most of the time I talk myself out of it. I walk away. I’m scared or I tell myself it won’t work, it’s not good enough. The usual rationalizations to avoid something, to avoid confrontation. Sometimes I go for it and it works.
Photography is a process of discovery and revelation. You need to make the pictures because they lead you to the next. They teach you what you are looking for. They teach you about the people who you are touched by.
Bleek Magazine: Maybe you can share a few episodes from your life about people (strangers) you found immediately interesting and thus photographed?
Michael Ackerman: There are some people who I’ve met in passing and photographed repeatedly after because I can’t reach the first time what I know is inside them, what they have to reveal. Also because when someone has such a strong hold on me that I need to photograph them, whether it’s a stranger or a friend, or my daughter, the fascination usually doesn’t end. I feel can photograph them forever.
For example, there is this set of pictures of a woman I met on the street, in Harlem. It’s a very intense corner, and often hostile to a white boy with a camera. I go there often when I’m in New York but it’s not easy to get close and be trusted. I saw this woman who was very witchy. I could sense that she was open. I started to speak with her and after some time she invited me to her home. These pictures come from the third time I saw her on the street and went home with her. She fell asleep.
Bleek Magazine: Has it ever happened that people whom you for various reasons never photographed somehow remained better in your memory?
Michael Ackerman: No. I don’t believe that photography is a substitute for memory. Just like writing is not a substitute. They are transformations of memory, of experience. So I don’t think that not photographing someone allows you to remember them better.
Bleek Magazine: Does it feel different when you photograph your own child? I am sure a little girl who appears so much in the film must be your daughter, she is so open, so strong and vulnerable at the same time…
Michael Ackerman: In many ways it is not different. As you say she is powerful and vulnerable. I think the pictures of her and of her and my wife, deal with the same things, ask the same questions that the rest of my work does. But of course it’s different. These pictures are more directly about me, my fears and my love for them.
Bleek Magazine: In this region many people believe that showing others the images of their babies can hoodoo kids, so they prefer, for example, post these pictures publicly when the child is big enough. How did it feel for you to show the pictures of your close people – they are shown as really very vulnerable, and the pictures are so intimate and genuine…
Michael Ackerman: I have to decide what I can and can’t expose of her. Some pictures are too much on the edge. I think that edge is different for everyone. For her mother, they are all too vulnerable. I have to believe that what I show is right. And important.
I give you an example of a picture of my daughter that I have trouble with (Garden 2016). It’s a very simple picture and not good enough to stand on it’s own. It doesn’t transcend. If I were to include it in my work it would be a little fragment in a story. But this picture is painful for me. And probably only for me. It is more true to the fear and fragility you feel being a parent than the better, more dramatic or beautiful pictures I made of her.
Bleek Magazine: Among your pictures one can often notice images of planes that seem to be marking something more than a formal change in the geographical location – they look more like a reference to some inner journey. You seem to be looking at different places, but continuing to look for yourself, like looking at how every single place remains the same. Is photography a mirror then or a spyglass? Do we photograph others or – inevitably – in all the places we visit we see only ourselves?
Michael Ackerman: I didn’t mean to make any statement with the airplane pictures. I completely fascinated by airplanes. I stare at them with big eyes like a child or a dog. I love to see them from the outside and I hate to be in them. After many years of trying to photograph them I finally managed to get a few pictures that I like very much so I tried to put as many of them in the slideshow as possible without overdoing it. Obviously they can be read as a sign of displacement. I never feel at home and I really long for that feeling.
As for the question of mirror or spyglass, it is not about oneself or about others – it’s always both.
Bleek Magazine: Can photography at all be taught, if it is so subjective? What is the role of the teacher then here – to help another person see (understand, accept…) him/herself?
Michael Ackerman: I think the role of the teacher is to offer possibility and hope. Kind of like a good psychologist.
Bleek Magazine: You said that you teach your students “to make mistakes”? Could you explain what you mean? Under which conditions can mistakes lead to understanding yourself and your own way in photography?
Michael Ackerman: Mistakes are what you learn from. They break the comfortable barriers that we surround ourselves with. The rules, the correct safe boring way of doing things. If you are searching you never stop making mistakes.
Bleek Magazine: Is photography a way of genuine artistic expression or a dialogue? How important is it for you to be really heard by a person who will have a contact with your photography? Or you leave your viewer with total freedom of interpretation? Whose mirror is photography then – yours or the viewer’s?
Michael Ackerman: I think I try to put pictures together, in exhibitions or layouts or this “movie” I sent you in as open and intuitive way as possible. I don’t want to limit their interpretation. I want it to be infinite. I like when people see in my works something I don’t.
Bleek Magazine: I know that some of your favourite subjects are trains and bars – ironically they have so much in common. Why do you find them attractive?
Michael Ackerman: They both have chairs and drink. They are both shelters.
PS. My great friend and great film maker Jem Cohen wrote an essay about my work titled «Suspension». Among many things, he dealt with trains and bars and how time is suspended in both. Here are a few lines he wrote:
«A bar is something like the center of an hourglass: at the top is time disappearing, and at the bottom, time spent. But to those in the place, the regulars, the middle is the only thing apparent and there time has stopped.
Michael deeply loves the snow trains that cut archaically through Europe, especially through Eastern Europe, especially the overnight trains which he and I share as our transportation of choice. On these you travel but are nowhere for the duration of the trip, floating through whiteness if it’s wintertime».
© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich