When Ken Schles, fresh out of school, moved to the Lower East Side of New York in 1978, it was a war zone of derelict buildings and lost souls. His apartment was cheap in part because all the windows were boarded up, but he figured that would make it easier to set up a darkroom. He was warned not to go onto the fire escape because he would be shot by someone who thought he was breaking in. It was here that he became part of a community that included not only struggling artists of all kinds but also junkies, dealers, and prostitutes. As a fledgling photographer who had studied with Lisette Model, and who admired the work of earlier generations of Paris and New York street photographers, he was compelled to capture the urban wreckage in his daily life — even as he scraped to survive. “The challenge of getting these shots was me. I had to feed myself, I had no money for food, I was in bad shape.” Schles’s friends were dying, AIDS was just starting to claim lives, and the city’s heroin epidemic was rampant.
New York was really violent back then, the murder rate was out of control. I think there were over 900,000 property crimes in the year that the book was published. It was crazy. And here I was in this world where you can’t escape. I had a sense of what it is or what it should be, what my goals are, and yet I’m in this place that’s crumbling, and I see people who can’t get out and they’re trapped. And so of course Kafka came to mind.
What emerged was a bounty of startling black-and-white images, both bleak and ravishing, that were so starkly truthful about that time and place that their publication as Invisible City in 1988 would become a landmark cult title, unavailable for over two decades. Originally published by legendary Twelvetrees Press in Pasadena, the book was printed on a photogravure press, now virtually extinct. If ever there were a book that could not be anything other than black and white, this was it. The riveting tonalities are the reality of Schles’s naked netherworld. His camera managed to memorialize a now-mythic era of New York history that for him at the time was merely “the reality out my front door.”
Twenty-six years later, master printer-publisher Gerhard Steidl agreed to recreate Invisible City for a pent-up demand. While Schles sifted through the original shots, he realized there were enough for a companion book, which became Night Walk (a title he borrowed from an Octavio Paz poem).
I had the opportunity to reprint Invisible City, and the question was, do we want to expand it, change a book that was so iconic? I wanted to keep that sense of the book as an object, and as a statement. I did it in my mid-twenties, and for me to come back as a fifty-year-old … No matter what I did it would be different. It was important not to touch it, reprint as best we can.
Not only was a night walk a resonant metaphor for Schles — a journey through personal and historical darkness — it echoed Brassaï’s classic work Paris de Nuit (Paris by Night). And it allowed Schles to stretch the original project into a more complete testament about his own generation’s reinvention of New York’s ethos.
The books are punctuated with texts selected by Schles, whose passion for the written word was nourished during his many years as a clerk at the Strand Bookstore. He was particularly inspired by the writings of cultural critic and de facto philosopher Lewis Mumford, whom he’d discovered when someone scribbled “Life exists as pathology in New York” on the bookshop’s restroom wall, a paraphrased Mumford quote from 1937.
At that point I wasn’t comfortable with my voice as a writer, and I also wanted something that wasn’t purely visual, that took you in a different direction. And the direction I wanted to go into was not descriptive of the images, rather reference ideas in the images or things I was thinking about.
The voices he chose included those of Borges, Kafka, Orwell, Eliot, and Baudrillard.
Inhabiting the mad personal space of people in the midst of their own dissipations and arousals, the books recall the equally candid work of Nan Goldin, who shot many of the same people as Schles. “I met her through a friend. You just met people, it was a very small world back then.” But Schles also ventured beyond the claustrophobic rooms, out into the forsaken streets and onto rooftops. But it was not just the work of Robert Frank, André Kertész, Diane Arbus, and other street photographers that was guiding him. “I felt like it was this legacy that I was continuing in a way, but I was bringing it to another place. But I also studied with Hans Haacke and Martha Rosler — there was a very big conceptual component to the work, so I was straddling several worlds.”
A note on the technical innovation that Steidl brought to the project: Aside from the three blacks and two grays that were used, new screens were created.
Everything now is computerized and standardized. Adobe makes the screens for all the printing presses all over the world. But there’s a certain quality to the old handmade photogravure screens, and Gerhard went back and researched their actual dot structures. He found a way to reproduce those screen patterns and has developed his own catalog of photogravure screens.
Now when Steidl has a project that requires matching an early photogravure book, he studies the way it was printed and cross-references it with something that he might have.
Looking back on his work, Schles embraces its lights and shadows.
There’s a stark intensity to them, but I also think they’re quite lyrical, and quite beautiful. For me it’s a love story as much as it’s a discussion about a struggle. I think I might have a different impression of it than other people. For me it was both the difficulty of it, but also the joy. I hope that comes across over time.
Invisible City and Night Walk (Steidl) will be released next week. “Invisible City / Night Walk: 1983-1989” runs at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York, January 29 through March 14.