Ken Schles, Invisible City (Steidl, 2014)
Ken Schles, Night Walk (Steidl, 2014)
It was almost 10 years after Gerald Ford told New York City to drop dead that a young Ken Schles picked up a camera and began to document his life in the East Village and Alphabet City. Ford never actually said those exact words, but the sentiment was taken to heart by many in the city, and drove those who did care into tight-knit bands, dedicating to saving the place they called home, or just staying alive in it. Those same impulses drove Schles’s photography of his surroundings, friends, and neighborhood in the 1980s. The images included in Schles’s newly reprinted Invisible City—as well as in its companion volume Night Walk, a new collection of images taken at the same time—reveal a city in flux, beset by crime and urban neglect but also brimming with life and youthful energy.
Shot entirely in gritty, impressionistic 35mm black-and-white, Invisible City and Night Walk are part of a long tradition of personal social documentary photography that includes William Klein, Robert Frank, Daido Moriyama, and Nan Goldin, as well as more recent examples like Ryan McGinley. Like his contemporary Nan Goldin, Schles’s snapshot aesthetic is intensely personal and comes from a common photographic desire to document, record, and preserve one’s life and surroundings. Lovers and friends are regular characters, but we’re also given a broader perspective into a small segment of New York City’s fringes. Casual portraits are interspersed with images of garbage-strewn streets or found details, like an abandoned baby carriage in an empty hallway. Throughout his images, Schles makes ample use of blur and grain, as well as a variety of different light sources, from a bright flash to a single light bulb, to illuminate his subjects. At times the scenes are shocking—like the burning buildings or half-naked addicts strung out on a filthy toilet—but other times they are tender, as with the images of a man stepping from a tenement bath or the young couple watching distant fireworks from their roof.
Invisible City was originally published in 1988 by Twelvetrees Press. It quickly sold out and became increasingly hard to find, attaining a cult status among many photographers. Schles has published several books since, but Invisible City has remained his best known. Through a series of fortunate events, and buoyed by a renewed interest in photographic books, Invisible City—as well as the newly edited, contemporaneous material that became Night Walk—caught the attention of Gerhard Steidl, one of the preeminent art book publishers. Steidl had also recently reinvented a close approximation of photogravure, a now extinct printing process, which had been used to print Schles’s original book over 25 years ago. Impressively, Steidl’s close approximation of gravure does a remarkable job of capturing the inky, black beauty of the original book.
Although drawn from the same era (roughly between 1983 and 1989), the two books are markedly different in their structure and tone. The much longer Night Walk fills in the gaps and leavens the original book. Whereas Invisible City is a chaotic bundle of energy and impressionistic insights, the narrative arc of Night Walk leads us on a journey through a long night of parties, nightclubs, concerts, and encounters, and ends at daybreak in the warm embrace of a sleeping companion. More tumultuous and peripatetic, Invisible City moves in fits and starts through the night and day, often presenting the two as interchangeable. Fire and neon ignite the night sky and cramped rooms of bars and nightclubs, and empty shattered buildings line the streets, blocking out the sun during the day. Invisible City has a reputation as a dark book, but that reputation seems undeserved, especially when paired with the new book. Instead, one is struck with moments of perseverance and levity, of people celebrating, drinking, or making love, despite their circumstances or living condition. The darkness hovers along the edges and occasionally creeps in, but is largely kept at bay.
While both works rest on a nostalgic vision of a New York past, such an invocation distracts from the more universal elements of the work. Directly invoking Italo Calvino’s masterwork, Schles’s title acknowledges that each city contains multiplicities that are at once deeply personal and often invisible to others, but also universal in their longing. At the heart of both works is a restless energy to record, preserve, and make visible the scars, energy, and excitement of youth trying to get high, get laid, and survive in a city teetering on the brink.
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer.