Le Journal de la Photographie 2013.2.13


We know a place best through the intimacies of contact: through direct and meaningful encounters with people situated in the everyday; through the tactile surfaces of walls and flesh and streets—and through the mythos that we distill from each and every one of those encounters. The world seeps into us: it colors and transforms how we see and what we know. It changes us. My book, Invisible City, was about finding myself in a particular time and place: New York City in the 1980s, a place where a revolution was unfolding. There was the birth of the no-wave movement, of punk and hip-hop; the East Village underground performance art scene, the illegal bars and transient clubs, storefront art galleries, the bombed out tenement buildings, rent strikes, squats, the crazy subways, the junkies and the crack heads; the squalor and the violence. The new scourge of AIDs was running rampant; friends were dying. I found a measure of solace in photographing my life, not knowing where it was going or where I was headed. I opened my book, Invisible City, with this text by the historian and philosopher (and fellow New Yorker) Lewis Mumford:

Cities are a product of time. They are the molds in which men's lifetimes have cooled and congealed, giving lasting shape, by way of art, to moments that would otherwise vanish with the living and leave no means of renewal or wider participation behind them. In the city, time becomes visible: buildings and monuments and public ways, more open than the written record, more subject to the gaze of many men than the scattered artifacts of the countryside, leave an imprint upon the minds even of the ignorant or the indifferent. Through the material fact of preservation, time challenges time, time clashes with time: habits and values carryover beyond the living group, streaking with different strata of time the character of any single generation. Layer upon layer, past times preserve themselves in the city until life itself is finally threatened with suffocation... Lewis Mumford The Culture of Cities

Having grown up in (and around) New York through the tumultuous 60s, 70s and 80s, I well knew that there were probably as many images of New York as there were inhabitants. But I saw the city in a different light. I saw how the City lived and breathed and had, for me, a particular, inimitable life to it. In the 1980s I chronicled that life. And although my images shared a palette with the rich history of photography that sketched and diagramed changing visions of New York City over the course of the previous century, my photographs didn’t fully match those other ways of seeing. They were my personal invisible city.

We retain from our interactions ideas and feelings; images and memories that may be fragmentary or fleeting, but that reflect an aspect, a glimpse of something much larger; something meaningful or sublime or transcendent: insights into things beyond the bounded picture frame. For me, the images of Invisible City function as such markers: photographic notations triggered through my encounters with the everyday in a post-apocalyptic New York. Individually and in aggregate I believe they point to something more, something other than the two dimensional surfaces of light and dark that they are. They point to a life that was lived in a place that had a certain weight and a particular meaning for those of us that lived there.

Invisible City is now itself an artifact carried over, as in Mumford’s words, “beyond the living group, streaking with different strata of time” its own character, showing us a view into a hermetic and lost way of being in a New York that once was and no longer is. And because New York City and places like it are places where people continue to live and struggle, I believe the renderings in Invisible City remain vivid and palpable still.

In 1992 a copy of Invisible City was shown in the Museum of Modern Art’s More Than One Photography exhibition as the sole representative of the published photographic book. It is listed in Auer and Auer’s compendium of important photographic books (Auer and Auer #646) and has been called “hellishly brilliant” by Vince Aletti, critic and a contributor to The Book of 101 Books, The: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century. Upon publication the critic Andy Grundberg selected it as a New York Times notable book of the year. This exhibition marks the first showing of prints from Invisible City on public display in America in seventeen years and comes twenty-five years after the book’s initial publication. A reprint of the book is forthcoming from Steidl.

I end Invisible City: Photographs by Ken Schles with this excerpt by Jorge Luis Borges:

A man becomes confused, gradually, with the forms of his destiny; a man is, by and large, his circumstances. More than a decipherer or an avenger, more than a priest or a god, I was one imprisoned. From the tireless labyrinth of dreams I returned as if to my home to the harsh prison. I blessed its dampness, I blessed its tiger, I blessed the crevice of light, I blessed my old suffering body, I blessed the darkness and the stone.
Borges Labyrinths

Ken Schles

Invisible City: Photographs by Ken Schles
Until April 30th, 2013
University of California Berkeley Graduate School of
Journalism Center for Photography
121 North Gate Hall #5860
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-5860

Reception, talk and book signing for his latest book Oculus, March 8th 2013 beginning 6pm