Moments of Beauty and Brilliance: Steve Ackerman

Steve Ackerman has an instinct for photographing people in states of quiet pleasure, even unto ecstasy. That is the actual condition of a young woman at the Winnipeg Folk Festival who has taken the drug for the first time, but his ongoing series of inner-city children enjoying a day at a municipal swimming pool is a less literal document of people taking pleasure in the activities of their bodies. He populates his photographs with edgy brightness.

The Winnipeg photographer earned a BFA at Syracuse and subsequently worked for a number of years in New York as an assistant to Philip-Lorca diCorcia (“He was very sarcastic, very smart and a pleasure to hang around.”) and Ellen von Unwerth (“She was very focused and had a nice light sense, so no one ever felt they were being photographed.”) Since his return to Winnipeg in 2009, he has photographed on a number of Guy Maddin films, including The Little White Cloud That Cried and Keyhole, the auteur’s most recent feature-length film.

Ackerman admits to being a long-time Maddin admirer, and as it turns out, filmmaker and photographer have found a companionable way of mingling their separate disciplines. Maddin incorporated the stills Ackerman took into The Little White Cloud, turning the role of documenter into one of collaboration. “The film was a crazy mix of far-out people doing far-out things, and I guess he appreciated that I wasn’t intimidated by what was going on.”

Ackerman recognizes that Maddin’s expectations of what he wants from an on-set photographer are uncommon. “Most directors are looking for pretty strict documentation of the film itself, something that will read in a newspaper or magazine. But Guy doesn’t see a problem with the separation between the moving and the still image. At the end of the day, the important thing was the vitality of the work that was produced.”

In Hauntings, an ancillary project to the shooting of Keyhole, Ackerman was able to work with a cluster of young filmmakers who were given access to the props, sets and actors that were part of the larger shoot. There would often be five of these shorts being filmed at the same time only a few feet from one another, in which one director would hold the lights for another director, or would double as a character in a scene. “It was a shoot different from any that has ever existed. It was a happening, very rich and energetic and playful and vital, and you didn’t know what was going to happen next. It was a little bit of a dream. I had no interest in being a hardened professional about it. I was more excited to capture the fleeting moments of beauty and brilliance that were springing up all around me.”

Ackerman will encounter a similar unpredictable richness in his next project, “A Bucket of Blood.” The title is the name given to a type of Winnipeg bar–“a really tough throwback almost to the Old West”–where he intends to shoot portraits. “I want to take classic portraits of these people who have led fascinating and interesting lives and have found themselves in dire straits. In that situation, I’m going to have to be awfully nimble and think on my feet. Sometimes these bars are absolute chaos.”

*Above images: (Top) **Steve Ackerman, *Hauntings still #60, *2010, inkjet print, 17 x 11”. All images courtesy the artist. (Bottom left)* Hauntings still #149*, 2010, inkjet print, 17 x 11”. (Bottom right) *Hauntings still #4*, 2011, inkjet print, 11 x 17”.*

Volume 30, Number 3: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #119, published September 2011.

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