An Appreciation of Ashley Pomeroy's Women and Dreams

Ashley Pomeroy has haunted me for years. He is a writer. A photographer. A musician. A poet, a video game player, a critic, a historian. He is a man with a lady's name, and he is the wholly singular author of a blog called Women and Dreams, one of the most remarkable online texts I’ve encountered.

 When Pomeroy writes a post that doesn't lend itself to illustrations, he often scatters his own photos around to break up the text. I'll do the same here with shots from by back catalog.

When Pomeroy writes a post that doesn't lend itself to illustrations, he often scatters his own photos around to break up the text. I'll do the same here with shots from by back catalog.

In 2018 it’s hard to recall that once, most blogs were about nothing, the neuronal noise of brains suddenly connected to a global network. That rambling impulse is now expended on Facebook and the like, precious seed spilled on poisoned ground. Today a blog must be about one thing. The penalty for straying out of niche is flogging with thorned branches. According to what law, you demand? The law, of course.

But Pomeroy flaunts the law. Though it seems that at first, he toed the line. He’s written a lot about old cameras and expired film. The first post on Women and Dreams, dating from 2009, is about the Nikon D1x, a digital camera that was dead and buried when Pomeroy published nearly 6,000 words about it. The piece goes deep into the camera as a historical object, its context and position in the flow of technology. It’s well written. There are hints of what’s to come, but what most sets it apart is the depth of attention focused on a camera that most people wouldn’t care about. If Pomeroy continued in this vein, I’d be impressed but not rapturous.

But as the blog goes on, something besides meticulous research creeps into Pomeroy’s camera reviews. In his review of the Olympus OM-1, he writes, “During the 1950s and 1960s Olympus had been a lone wolf hunting away from the pack, its mouth stained with the flesh of its prey as it dove through banks of snow, driven by a satanic lust for warm blood; it had long since filled its belly, now it hunted in a futile quest to discharge the mounting howl of rage that swelled within its hot black heart.” A sentence later, Pomeroy is back into a more trenchant but less fun analysis of what Olympus was up to. But the digression sets a tone: you’re not sure what’s coming next, and its perverse humor flavors writing that might otherwise read straighter.  

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Still later, Pomeroy moves beyond brief digressions. His review of the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-S lens opens with the line, “Wesley Willis had names for his demons.” He goes on to discuss what Pac-Man’s psychology and the psychology of the few men who have achieved perfect scores playing Pac-Man have in common, then systems analysis, the modeling of human society, Katy Perry’s wardrobe choices, and Hitler and Stalin’s efforts to forcibly mold social systems. He writes over 1,600 words before mentioning the lens, and when he finally introduces it, we see his trademark style of violent non sequitur:

“Hitler cared only for the good of his tribe. But the great machine of humanity has its own course, and cares not for individual tribes; its ultimate destination is unknowable and perhaps not to our satisfaction. We may not recognise it when we arrive. Perhaps the program has already run its course, and we are simply swarf left to blow away in the wind, patients left forgotten in the waiting room of a dental practice that shut half an hour ago. Today we're going to have a look at the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-S.”

Pomeroy stays with old cameras, old lenses, until 2011, when he takes on a video game called Manic Miner. This piece is actually a capsule history of the British video games industry in the 1980s. It’s great.  More camera stuff follows, but then you get a post about Fermat’s theorem and a Paul Simon song.

Pomeroy compels me. I learned about him from a friend, word of mouth. In a small restaurant in Paris run by an old man who fled persecution in Vietnam to start a new life among his former colonizers. The air in this restaurant is often thick with those tiny flies that are attracted to fruit and wine, fermenting things, just as a typical Pomeroy post is thick with ideas, digressions, surreal asides. Restaurants without flies are not completely beyond my means, but I like this one because I’m cheap and it has lots of atmosphere. 

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I’ve spent some time trying to find the perfect entry point, the post that will give you the flavor I want you to taste, but this is surprisingly difficult. Women and Dreams works as a cumulative experience. The edifice that Pomeroy has built must be lived in to be fully appreciated - it’s not enough to quickly tour a few rooms. 

So start anywhere. Read a few thousand words about ambient music or The Beatles, a classic film, a long-dead lineage of cameras, an old laptop, or a video game. I haven’t really played a video game since the mid 90s, and even then I was a dilettante, but I like Pomeroy’s game reviews. Like New Yorker reviews of books I’ve never read and will never read, but would like to know about. 

The only times Pomeroy’s really lost me are some particularly deep dives into music. What music do I like? The grumble of history breaking up in the past like a glacier calving into an endless sea of forgetting. And Lorde, obviously.

But if you’re not just going to dive in, if you expect me, the reviewer, to do my job, fine. Here’s Pomeroy on the city he often documents:

“Me and London. London matters. Because every genius needs something to feed his mind, and London has a lot of things to look at and think about. And eat, too. It has shops as well. An integrated transport network. Staggeringly expensive houses, filled with people who are not there.”

Pomeroy is angry about London’s transformation into a storage vessel for global capital (a recurring theme for him) in a way that’s not fashionable today. We are supposed to be measured, or we are frothing fundamentalists. Pomeroy is neither, which is refreshing.

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His movie reviews are majestic. He writes not just about the film, but about the making of the film, the perceptions of contemporary audiences (when reviewing older movies, which he does often), the film’s place in the sweep of cinema history. And he writes things like this:

“In my mind Star Wars and Empire belong to the world of myth and legend whereas Return of the Jedi belongs to a world where it rains on Sunday and cats die and life consists of stupid people hitting each other.”

I’ve mentioned his digressions. Many of the best are stand-alone bits of flash fiction (or non-fiction). I’m confident that no other review of the Sony PlayStation 3 game console addresses this issue:

“A few years ago Pathé News uploaded its archive to YouTube, but most of the clips only have a few hundred views, probably from bots. Occasionally the robonews that passes for internet journalism digs out one of the clips and there's a brief flurry of interest but otherwise Pathé's archives are trapped in a kind of eternal living death. We dream about people and things that are lost to us because the mystery is intriguing, but while the dead sleep the taste of the living moves on and the past becomes small.”

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I’m just going to keep going. Pomeroy’s not a big Leica guy, but he does write a little about the R system. Consider this, from his review of the R8. Many camera reviewers include a snippet of the maker’s history. Pomeroy is no exception, but he’s exceptional:

“Leica was founded in 1849 and has survived a period of human history that killed millions and obliterated empires, that saw the conquest of space and of the atom - and, as a consequence, the possible end of human civilisaton and all multi-cellular life on Earth. In Leica's time we realised that death is the end, that the stars are beyond us, that there are limits to our reach, and that without restraint we would kill ourselves and everything we wanted to keep.”

He hasn’t reviewed a Leica M camera, but he addresses the system in his R8 review with characteristic flair.

“Leica is most often associated with its famous, long-running line of rangefinder cameras, which are popular with fat rich Swiss people, rich Chinese people, rich Russians. In the grim future of Frank Herbert's Dune, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen will own a Leica. With his fat fingers sliding over the controls he will use it to photograph the bodies of all the boys he strangled, so that he can look at the pictures and imagine what it must be like to be dead.”

No one could have said it better, no one else could have said it. I still pretend I’m Henri Cartier-Bresson when I fondle my M2, but in my darker moments the Baron now intrudes on the fantasy.

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Let’s stop with the specifics and return to generalities. You might find just about anything in a Pomeroy post, but a few blog-standards are missing: typos, sloppy language, unpolished thought, lazy fact handling. Outside of the better professional outlets, it’s difficult to imagine any substantial body of text online in 2018 that doesn’t lean into these elements, but here it is, a unicorn that can only be made mortal by the touch of Mia Sara’s hand. 

But it’s not just good writing. It’s strange. It rambles in the most engaging way. It is manifestly not for everyone, and the fact that I like it makes me feel special. I want everyone to know about it, but I don’t want everyone to get it. Not that there’s any danger of Pomeroy becoming mainstream, not in this world, nor any of the worlds adjacent to us. As near as I can tell, very few people benefit from the astounding effort he puts into his writing. The Twittersphere doesn’t erupt when he drops a new post. Apart from the friend who originally introduced me to him I’ve never come across anyone online or off who knows of him, any reference to the blog.

That is why I’m writing this, I suppose. If Pomeroy had a million Instagram followers, I wouldn’t bother. His stuff is great, but what also seduces me is the idea of a man pouring this effort into the void of an indifferent universe. I must read his work in that context, and it moves me. It is proof of purity. No art exists in a vacuum: everything has a social context. The Mona Lisa has actually been obliterated by its context, even though it's hanging right there in the Louvre -- it is a thing seen so much it has become impossible to see. When Khloé Kardashian posts a selfie on Instagram, she knows she is doing it for 76 million people, and the million-odd people who “like” it know they are among those millions. I’m trying to say that sometimes the world makes me want to scream, and other times it actually does make me scream, into a pillow, so as not to disturb the neighbors, but there are still many good things in it, and many things more terrible than vapid celebrity.  

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I’ve toyed with the idea that Pomeroy doesn’t care if people read him or not, but I’ve had to discard the notion – there are hints, here and there, that he’s open to expanding his audience. A Twitter account, a few forum posts linking back to his pieces, links to the site in old bios. Comments are disabled on Women and Dreams – is it because he can’t be bothered to moderate the incoherent railings of mouth-breathers, or because he likes the mystique of appearing not to care about generating "social engagement" around his writing, or because he doesn’t like to see a 5,000-word-post with 0 comments any more than the next guy?

The site itself, hosted on Blogger, seems designed to blend into the background noise of the internet. But Pomeroy isn’t technologically naïve. This is a guy who installs Linux on old PCs for shits and giggles. I think he chose Blogger rather than something hipper because he expects it to be around for a long time. Google (which owns Blogger) is the Great Archiver. The company keeps Usenet posts from the 80s preserved in amber. Perhaps Pomeroy just wants to make sure his words remain accessible. Sometimes he wrestles with this theme explicitly. In a post that opens with a meditation on a photograph of Audrey Hepburn, he writes:

“Ostensibly this blog is about photography, although in practice I find it hard to stay focused on one thing and there is only so much to say about photography. The equipment doesn't move me any more; it's the art I care about, specifically the topic that drives all art. The desire to live beyond death.”

It's an unusually earnest tone for Pomeroy, who most often uses hyperbole and semi-fiction to communicate his deeper truths. 

I’ve also considered the possibility that there actually is a modestly large readership for the site -- not Kardashian-large, but, say, tier-two-literary-fiction large -- but that like me, those people don’t mention much of anything on Twitter. They might be telling their friends about it in restaurants and bars, in back alleys and shallow cave networks, rather than on Facebook. This is my preferred version of reality, and where it doesn’t exist, I seek to make it. The end.

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P.S.

Although Women and Dreams seems to be the focus of Pomeroy's current efforts, he's left other noteworthy evidence of his passage. Most interesting is his contribution of articles to Everything2, a kind of Wikipedia-meets-Urban-Dictionary-meets-LiveJournal that apparently flourished around the turn of the millennium. I had never heard of it and only encountered it in the context of stalking Pomeroy across the internet. Reading his pieces there, I realized that the weirdness that grows in Women and Dreams was actually there from the start -- he was just reining it in. He’s also apparently a prolific Wikipedia editor, though there his effort is subsumed into the hive mind. He also co-wrote two printed books. I’ve read one, a tiny collection of illustrated absurdist wit, but the other appears be wholly unavailable. And he's written entertaining reviews on Amazon, though they seem to be tapering off of late.