Friday, March 11, 2016

Kathy Acker

Kathy Acker, Toronto, Oct. 1988

I MISS TAKING PORTRAITS. Where it was once nearly all I did it's now something I only rarely manage, and even if the market for editorial portraiture is effectively dead, I'm hungry to have any excuse to get people in front of my camera. Perhaps one day I'll try to understand why I enjoyed it so much; in the meantime I can only speculate that it got me to interact - with brief, forced intimacy at the best of times - with people like writer Kathy Acker.

I shot Acker early in my career, when I was desperate for subjects and experience. Back then it seemed so much easier to arrange access, which is how I found myself set up in the lobby of the Harbour Castle underneath a generous skylight while a helpful publicist led a parade of guests from the Harbourfront Author's Festival down the elevators to me.

I'd made up my list of requests carefully, after going through the itinerary with my friend Nebojsa Vasovic, a poet back in his native Serbia (then still Yugoslavia.) On a handful of contact sheets I shot half a roll each of a strange mix of writers: Jerzy Kosinski and Jay McInerney and Marianne Wiggins (then still married to the fatwa-stricken Salman Rushdie,) as well as Milorod Pavic and the Russian Andrei Bitov.

I was dubious about Acker but my friend Nebojsa insisted - she had quite an international following, he said, which included countries in the Soviet bloc. In any case she looked incredible, and that would mean good pictures at least.

Kathy Acker, Toronto, Oct. 1988

Acker came down from her room, a tiny woman with a fierce New York accent in a t-shirt dress with sleeves pulled up by safety pins. I tried framing tight, author headshots of her face but her whole demeanor - the clothes, her attitude - demanded I pull back. Luckily the walls of hotel lobby were covered in richly grained wood paneling, so my background was neither too dull nor dark nor distracting. It's early work, simple and a bit timid; if it works at all it's more to do with the subject than the photographer.

There was something almost vulnerable about her, despite her spiky personality. My friend Nebojsa knocked on her hotel room door later that day. He introduced himself as a writer from Serbia, she invited him in, and they carried on a lively, candid conversation while she changed in front of him quite unselfconsciously. This was, I understand, normal for Acker.

Kathy Acker, Toronto, Oct. 1988

I always found Acker's books too much for me - too raw, too crazed, too perverse - though I liked how outrageously she wrote, and how her work always seemed to make the right people either angry or confused. Her life played out like one of those long, careful acts of self-destruction, and when the end came she didn't fight death as much as prolong its embrace.

Diagnosed with cancer, she initially accepted medical treatment but opted for "natural remedies" when it was discovered to have spread. (Like so many "punks" of her generation, I'm struck by how much of a hippie she turned out to be.) Throwing herself into the care of naturopaths and faith healers, she tried to beat the cancer with diet and powders and meditation, and ended up dying in a new age hospice in Mexico.

I can't imagine the last twenty years would have been kind to Kathy Acker; the culture has taken on a puritanical edge that's wholly hostile to someone as habitually provocative. If her further books were anything like the ones she left behind, they'd be considered "problematic" and full of "triggers." In retrospect - and I can't believe it when I say this - the '80s and '90s were a freer time, and one more sympathetic to someone like Acker.

Kathy Acker died of cancer in Tijuana, Mexico on November 30, 1997.


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