Saturday, 6 November 2010

Geoff Dyer and Michael Ackerman

I'm very excited to be starting Geoff Dyer's new collection of essays, Working the Room (Canongate), not least because it solves a question that's been bugging me for a time. I tend to judge books by their covers, and have been known to buy multiple copies of the same work simply because I'm taken by the alternate jackets. I have duplicates of a couple of books by Dyer - this is a coincidence; I don't do it that often - but have always regretted not picking up a US imprint of his novel Paris Trance for its striking cover image (detail, pictured; it had a terrible jacket in its initial UK versions), nor could I remember the name of the photographer.

One of the shortest pieces in Working the Room reveals the name of the man behind this blurry, sexy shot: Michael Ackerman. It also features another similar picture (Untitled) of a naked person bent over, hand gripped in front of face, perhaps scooping up water, or giving a blow job for all you can see. It blew me away in much the way Dyer reacted when he first encountered Ackerman's work: 'The pictures were subtly erotic, incredibly intimate and, as can happen when you are exposed to certain works of art, I felt as if something in me had been waiting for them. It was like falling in love.' The series he saw was called Paris, France, 1999, which almost lent him the title for a book, presumably.

Though the author doesn't mention Ackerman in his survey of American photography, The Ongoing Moment, the photographer does feature in Dyer's last novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. In the novel's second half - Death… - the unnamed narrator finds Ackerman's book of photos of Varanasi, End Time City, in the hotel where he is staying: 'They were like pictures of the inside of the photographer's head while he was here, or later, while he was remembering it, or while he was asleep, sweat-drenched and dreaming about it.'

This is the kind of brilliant insight you'll find in Dyer's essays; his journalism always contains one line that turns perceived thinking on its head and is worth the price of admission. (In a review included in the latest book, he breaks down the title of Ian McEwan's Atonement into its constituent parts: 'at-one-ment'. I don't share Dyer's admiration for that novel's stylised nature, but I hesitate when I read his assessment: 'McEwan… seems to be retrospectively inserting his name in the pantheon of British novelists of the '30s and '40s.')

There are many reasons why I love Dyer's writing - not least because he writes so well: he's fluent, captivating, endearing (is this what they call man love?) - but I also share many of his fascinations. He namechecks many of my favourites: Jacques Henri Lartigue, Rodin, James Salter, Denis Johnson, John Cheever, WG Sebald… There's a beautiful photo by Miroslav Tichy (Untitled, again), who I hadn't heard of before but about whom I immediately want to read and find out more: I trust Dyer's judgement.

Typically modestly, he writes in the introduction: 'I see I keep coming back to Rebecca West or John Cheever or DH Lawrence when I'm writing about other people: they constitute the core of my personal canon, the writers I can't do without. The fact that Robert Frank keeps coming up as a point of comparison when I'm talking about other photographers might be a symptom of the author's inadequate frame of reference; or perhaps it shows that there is no getting away from him (I meant Frank but perhaps the same is true of the author).' Which is pretty much how I feel about Dyer, and why I keep coming back to him - here, and here, and here. Well, you get the picture.

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