“For generations the Lower East Side was a churning cauldron of activity. Site of immigrants (my own family passed through there more than a century ago), it already had a long history of renewal and decay.”
Alex Bocchetto of Akina Books Interviews Ken Schles
Alex Bocchetto: With Invisible City you narrated New York’s East Village and Alphabet City from a very personal point of view. Can you tell us your experience in shooting for the project back then?
Ken Schles: Even after all these years it still feels a little alien to me to hear Invisible City referred to as a “project.” I guess we can call it a project. I was responding to what I was seeing and feeling at the time—where I found myself. Invisible City was about confronting and overcoming fears: it was about being locked inside my apartment and feeling trapped, but also wanting to venture out. To go out into what seemed an overwhelming, arbitrary, inscrutable, dangerous world. I didn’t quite know how to proceed. I was unsure of myself. I had no money and few resources. But I recognized that what I experienced everyday when I walked the streets near my home wasn’t reflected in what I saw in mainstream media. I felt compelled to capture that mood, which for me was so tangible, so palpable. And obvious too: what I was experiencing was intimately connected to outcomes of recent history: the collapse of the inner city, postwar deindustrialization, economic stratification, cultural dislocation, race tensions, the drug wars, the rise of AIDS. My state of mind—what I saw and how I lived—was a direct result of social and economic machinations that had been grinding along for a long time. The degraded physical environment… it all weighed upon me.
Alex: So it didn’t start as a project but more as diary entries …and to set the record straight, to give a different narrative of New York. Now I feel I better understand the title Invisible City: the inner city authorities are not willing to show, but it also hints at private spaces and the city within the city, a sort of “Interzone.”
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to become a scientist or an artist. But I got into art school with a full scholarship: Cooper Union, which was on the headwaters of the Bowery (not far from CBGBs…).”
Ken: I walked in the safety of friends in a forbidding and wild place. With the camera I tried to organize what I found: give it a semblance of sense, a modicum of meaning—at least for myself.
For generations the Lower East Side was a churning cauldron of activity. Site of immigrants (my own family passed through there more than a century ago), it already had a long history of renewal and decay. This activity also involved a tenaciously prickly art avant-garde, which had flourished there in various forms for nearly a hundred years. I had been living in the East Village five years when I began this “project” of mine. Things had begun to change in my part of the slum. We found places to go amidst the rubble and the open drug markets. Art galleries, performance spaces and underground clubs would spontaneously appear next to drug drops and abandoned buildings. People gathered at art openings or listened to music or saw performances or hung out in the bars. I fell in with this activity. These places became islands of refuge amidst boarded up storefronts and bodegas and liquor stores with their overpriced limited offerings hidden behind two-inch thick bulletproof Plexiglas pass through windows. These venues provided both spectacle and community in otherwise bleak corridors. The people I hung out were my friends. We’d barter services and borrow on each other’s talents—lean on each other for support so we could continue making our art. In turn, we’d show in the local galleries or perform in bars and clubs. When I photographed it was in the comfort of people I was familiar with or in places I knew well. I’d find parties where I knew there’d be food to stretch things along. Photography was my tool to explore where my life had taken me—I used it to frame and dissect my time and place. I used the camera to put my observations into context.
Alex: You wrote once “those were the taxi drivers days” …riots, drugs and violence, even if these are not actually shown inside the frame. How did the general atmosphere and your lifestyle influence the work
Ken: Lifestyle is as an odd word, isn’t it? Sorry if I seem to pick up on specific words of yours like that. But it’s not an unreasonable question. Even back then it was thought that I was somehow making a choice about where I was and what I was doing. People would ask me why I choose the lifestyle I chose. Why didn’t I just go to live someplace easier, someplace safer? These choices only appear as choices if you have the luxury to approach them that way. Lifestyle has to do with notions of class and economic mobility—or moral disposition. Hearing the word reminds me of the time my slumlord landlord refused to negotiate with me. He said, “Who the hell do you think you are to have middle class aspirations.” I remember a cop saying to me after my apartment was broken into, “You seem like a smart white guy. What the fuck are you doing living in a shit-hole neighborhood like this?” Attitudes like that just pissed me off. I was who I was. I lived where I lived as best I knew how. This was my home. This was my neighborhood. These were my friends. There were no “lifestyle” choices here as far as I could see. My situation encompassed facts that I simply accepted. I felt bound up—trapped—in the reality I found myself in. Trapped by history, trapped by economics, trapped by my desire to make new work and live affordably… I was committed to trying to make things work in my life.
Alex: Maybe “daily life” is more appropriate than lifestyle, with less of that middle-class burden attached to it?
Ken: You have to understand what the city was like back then too. I grew up in the city and suffered through some of its more difficult social upheavals. I was from a working class family. In the early 1960s my parents rented a few rooms in a house on a dirt road in the farther reaches of Brooklyn. Six of us lived in a small two-bedroom apartment. I shared a room with a brother and my mother and father. But my parents were doing better than their parents who immigrated to America. My father used to tell us about sleeping five to a bed. Later, my father bought a modest house in Queens. But by then there was the great migration of the middle class out of the city that coincided with racial tensions and a loss of the industrial base. Neighborhoods changed overnight. The city had gotten violent. The schools were a mess. One night our house was broken into while we slept upstairs. The burglar came into the bedrooms, found my father’s wallet and stole his cash. He had just gotten paid for a job. The burglar took red paint and smeared it all over our walls and poured milk over our rugs. Another time a burglar ran through our backyard couldn’t jump the cinder block wall carrying his stolen goods. So he left a record player he was hauling. I adopted it and “borrowed” a couple of LPs from an older brother: Led Zeppelin III and Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced. I’d listen to them over and over. Forward and back.
I Don’t Live Today lyrics by Jimi Hendrix
Will I live tomorrow?
Well I just can’t say.
Will I live tomorrow?
Well, I just can’t say.
But I know for sure
I Don’t Live Today.
No sun coming through my windows,
feel like I’m sitting at the bottom of a grave.
No sun coming through my windows,
feel like I’m sitting at the bottom of a grave.
I wish you’d hurry up ‘n’ rescue me
so I can be on my mis’rable way
Alex: How was growing in the neighborhood?
Ken: I was the only white kid in my elementary school. Which didn’t bother me, except that one kid got pissed at me for “killing” Christ. In middle school he’d continue to harass me, eventually he threatened to kill me (he was roundly beaten by the Assistant Principal as a result). There were tensions after the Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations. I had mixed feelings about the Black Panthers, but (as a 10 year-old) was somehow sympathetic to the work they were doing in the neighborhood.
There was a lot of anger. My middle school was nicknamed “The Jungle” by the cops. Ambulances would line up in front of the school every morning. I’d get mugged for change or my lunch or for humiliation. There were huge gang fights. On some weekends people would steal cars and take them on joy rides and smash them into the walls of my middle school after running them across the schoolyard.
I remember my brother (in high school at the time) once got sent home early because it was fire bombed. And then there was the Viet-Nam War. My two oldest brothers were trying to figure out how to get out of the draft. The protests were raging. The schoolteachers went on strike and the parents took over. I learned Swahili. We moved to the suburbs and by high school it was all about sex and drugs and rock and roll (and getting into a good college!).
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to become a scientist or an artist. But I got into art school with a full scholarship: Cooper Union, which was on the headwaters of the Bowery (not far from CBGBs…). And so, at the age of seventeen, I moved to the East Village with a couple of high school friends. It was less than a year after the blackout and riots of ’77 when a thousand fires lit the evening skies in NY. The city was bankrupt. The South Bronx went up in flames. The tenements were emptying: left to rot and abandoned. The murder rate was out of control. Landlords would torch buildings for insurance money or the junkies would do it for them by accident. Watching these fires on hot summer nights was a form of entertainment. And as the 70s were coming to a close, the AIDS epidemic began to take hold. I worked at the Strand bookstore summers and part time. One of my job duties was to score drugs for my masochistic boss in Union Square Park and watch him get high and go on about his mother (I found out recently that he committed suicide some years ago). My roommate got into heroin while I was traveling in Europe for a short bit. I lost my apartment as a result and eventually moved into a shit-hole on Avenue B. The front of the building was considered “safe” because there was a mafia-controlled bar in one of the storefronts. Since there was a numbers operation run out of it, they didn’t want any trouble. So the heroin dealers and the junkies stayed away from the front of the building at first. The back of the building faced a no man’s land on 13th Street. My windows were boarded over to keep out the junkies who would steal whatever they could. I was told I’d be shot if I ever went on the fire escape.
One time I was at an opening at The Museum of Modern Art and someone had climbed down three-stories on a rope from the roof to break into the one window in my apartment without a security gate. Another time I called the police to get them to come to the building and the operator refused my call saying that my address was not in the database and that my building didn’t exist (“How dare you. It’s a misdemeanor to call 911under false pretenses. We’ll trace your call and arrest you.”). There was a family on welfare living upstairs—the mother was a junkie and she would rent her place out in exchange for dope.
After the landlord abandoned the building word got out on the street that our building was free game and we had, what I refer to as the “drug war” for control of the building. I took over apartments as they emptied, slapped locks on the doors and formed a tenant’s association. I edited Invisible City during that time. That winter we had little heat or hot water.
“In 1988 (the year Invisible City was published) over 2200 people were murdered in the city, over 5300 rapes were reported—and there were over 932,000 property crimes. And you know most of the bad shit was happening in poorer communities like mine.”
I forced the city to go after my landlord and he was convicted on thirty-two counts of contempt of court, which got him thrown in jail. I worked with the child welfare agency to go after the junkie mother for child abuse–her three children were taken away (one died shortly after). In 1988 (the year Invisible City was published) over 2200 people were murdered in the city, over 5300 rapes were reported—and there were over 932,000 property crimes. And you know most of the bad shit was happening in poorer communities like mine. Some of this was so dark you’d just have to laugh. Like when my neighbor Jack called me to ask me if I could walk his dog. I asked him why he couldn’t do it. He said he sprained his ankle when he fell off a chair in his kitchen after trying to hang himself. [Jack was pissed when his “roommate” committed suicide. His lover Tom was sick with Kaposi sarcoma and knew he would soon be dead from AIDS, so he cashed in his life insurance policy and OD’d on massive quantities of drugs—sadly, according to Jack, without letting Jack in on any of it.]
Alex: …which influenced your work. Was it this “difficult” situation that led you towards a diaristic style? To show a point of view everybody turned their eyes away from?
KEN: How could this not influence the work? Am I separate from my time or my experience? Can I isolate myself and turn away from this world I found myself in? I had a tool made explicitly to capture these things. The world had a stake in making me. It would be disingenuous to look away: As if I somehow could. But I knew that the larger society had already turned away. Nobody really wanted to know these stories; nobody wanted to look at these pictures. That was one of the reasons I made this book. Society gives lip service to those without means or power and ignores their pleas for help, and I’m still pissed about that. But I also realize that the problem isn’t simply that most of those that are shut out have no means to express themselves to those in power. It’s worse: they believe the rhetoric that enslaves them, they fritters away their energy or blind themselves to the truth of their history or their situation or the possibility that they can be free of so much of the shit that keeps them down. And there is so much work that still needs to be done.
ALEX: We are accustomed to photographers documenting far away places, it’s far less common to find stories shot from an “insider’s” point of view. In which way did being a born and bred New Yorker change the way you portrayed the city?
KEN: You know I didn’t come to New York because I had some eff’ing fantasy about how cool it was. I didn’t have any illusions about it. Whatsoever. I didn’t romanticize the violence or think that it was cool to be some poor white dude living off Mama’s dime in the ghetto. I think it was easier for me to be critical… It’s where I grew up. I saw failures and possibilities. I saw inequity, but I also saw love.
I wondered about these macho white photography guys who went to far away lands and told stories about places they knew little of. It’s funny though. I liked Henri Cartier Bresson’s images, but I felt uncomfortable with his cultural voyeurism. How does one make peace between the two? I thought about Gilles Peress, who I knew well and (still to this day) respect as one of my great photography mentors—I wondered why he had to travel to say what he had to say. I know he’d say it was because he was curious and wanted to find out about the world through direct experience, in an unmediated way. I’m not sure I can so easily check my cultural assumptions at the door. But I’m more reconciled about seeing the “other” as best I can now. And I’m more sanguine about the possibilities of doing so, especially now in our age of solipsistic electronic instant-media self-exploitation. But back then such things didn’t exist and going through what I was going through—it made absolutely no sense for me to turn my back on my sense of things or my own experience.
If you are working as an insider you should portray the world with the perspective of an insider. (Hopefully) you will communicate the intimacy and the immediacy of what you experience. But there is so much to untangle there… One of the things that made me realize that I had to make Invisible City was realizing that the New York of my father was not the New York that I knew. Or even the New York of my childhood or the New York that my brothers experienced—or the New York of myth. The New York of Robert Frank wasn’t mine to know either—or that of Weegee or Hine or Levitt—or even Allen Ginsberg (he was still active in the neighborhood back then). As a student I studied with Hans Haacke (who was a member of Fluxus) and I was involved with a study group run by Martha Rosler. Because of my education and my early experiences I was suspicious of exploitative modes of documentation. I felt to work on something in any kind of documentary vein I had to work on something close. And I couldn’t find anything closer than my own life. But even then, or especially then, you end up chasing ghosts.
ALEX: The title Invisible City makes more sense to me now. The nature of your subjective and documentarian point of view allows us to see what is otherwise invisible.
KEN: We are solitary creatures situated in a place and point in time that is unique to each of us. The New York City my friends and neighbors knew was different from the NY I experienced. Let’s be honest: we’re all perpetual outsiders to each other’s experience. That’s the tragedy of being human. But we can struggle against that. So there’s possibility as well: we may be locked into our own place and time, but we can share our little revelations, those small realizations of the everyday, and share in whatever knowledge that might bring us or open us to. That’s a very human trait: the attempt to communicate something meaningful. Sharing these other ways of seeing gives us perspective on what each of us experiences. But we must remain critical. It’s too easy to block out the truth of what is right in front of us. Often we’re in denial of the reality right in front of us. We fall in love with images that enslave and entangle us. Too often we re-project seductive cultural images we enjoy being fed, instead of taking care of business.
New York City has a large shifting Mythos attached to it. Most of it is hyperbole and self-serving. Invisible City was my way of shouting back and asking, “What do you know about this place? Can’t you open your eyes and see what is around you—see what’s right in front of your face?” Ralph Ellison says in Invisible Man, “What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking right through? And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
ALEX: For how many years have you been shooting before you felt you had enough material for a book?
KEN: I began to accumulate more and more as the years went on. And while it’s true that what I was photographing was never static and the scene always morphing, after four or five years things really began to shift and the neighborhood wasn’t the same anymore. The scene was quickly getting co-opted, exploited, trendy. I felt I had to do something with the material at that point. I also needed to organize it for my own sanity, to make sense of it for myself. At that point I wasn’t happy to just show it on a few gallery walls and be done with it. So I began to make it into a book. And when I was making the book, I soon realized I had way too much material. It was sprawling and not so well edited at first. After many rejections from publishers I decided, “Less is more.” I made the tightest edit I could; spoke in as clear a voice as I could through the book dummy; I tried to be as concise as possible. I made my invisible city visible.
“I was told America was great, that New York City was special, but what kind of future was there really for my friends or me at the time? I felt there was a lot of deception about how life was great in the US, how we were living an American Dream.”
ALEX: In a short essay for The Photobook Club, you wrote that Invisible City is a love letter to a particular place in a particular time but there’s some criticism too: the quotes from Orwell and Kafka, the darkness and the low-key style of the pictures, the burning building on the cover …what raised your concerns about city life?
KEN: I was told America was great, that New York City was special, but what kind of future was there really for my friends or me at the time? I felt there was a lot of deception about how life was great in the US, how we were living an American Dream. But the US was running a covert war in Central America, life in New York seemed to be crumbling like the buildings around me. Only a partial facade remained of these edifices—both literally and figuratively.
There were so many self-serving lies and traps to fall into. People–friends were dying. AIDS and drugs and violence were killing my generation. There was a recession. There where few opportunities. At least I felt that at the time. People were trying to make it work, but there were a lot of failures, a lot of losses, a lot of casualties, a lot of deaths. There was a palpable darkness: there was strife. I was in court with my landlord. We had no heat or hot water. Not much work. There was a war on the streets and in my hallway. And you could convince yourself it was interesting if you weren’t constantly running for cover or grabbing a baseball bat to protect yourself.
I wondered, what was this enterprise of life for? What was the point of all this suffering and struggle? I still wonder at times, but I think after all these years I see in my own life more meaning and more direction. I’m not picking through the wreckage of exterior signs as earnestly right now—at least not that way. Internally, perhaps I am, but not so much through the wreckage of external things that surround me like they did back then. Yes, Invisible City is my love letter. It was my time and my coming of age. But it was a very bittersweet time. I think to ignore the harder part would make my story banal and less honest to my experience. To leave out the love would make it too bitter a pill to take—and a little less honest. It’s hard to boil down the totality of things without distortion, but you are looking for efficiencies to state your point as succinctly as possible. I never wanted to be nostalgic about my struggles.
ALEX: After 25 years you went back to the archive of Invisible City to create Night Walk, first it started as an “alternate take” of Invisible City than it became a book with its own personality. Can you explain to us the process that led to the creation of Night Walk?
KEN: It’s a bit of a story… a confluence of events. There had been a growing interest in Invisible City. A few years back Harper Levine of Harper’s Books asked me to put something special together that he could take to Paris Photo related to Invisible City. I knew I had this out-take material in a box and decided to drag it all out. I found text and images that I had rejected for the original. The reason why some of this material wasn’t used in Invisible City wasn’t that I was unhappy with it. It’s just that I wanted to focus the book a certain way and this material was taking it into other territory. So I thought for Paris I’d play with these remnants. I found in my storage box a copy of a poem by Octavio Paz called “Night Walk” from the book Eagle or Sun? I liked the conceit of a walk in the evening air as an underlying structure since a large impetus for Invisible City was the metaphor of me going out my apartment door and walking into the world. (You can read the Paz poem in its entirety.) I was excited about what the old material conjured and it invigorated my interest. But ultimately I felt that what I gave Harper was still too connected to what Invisible City was. This thing was still trying to be another Invisible City, but it was a lesser one. I continued to play with it and pull more work into it from my archives. I became enamored with the idea that I it might evolve into a small special edition to accompany the upcoming Steidl reprint of Invisible City. I knew I had even more material in my archive to explore. Unfortunately, much of what I shot early on was compromised because of technical limitations and primitive working conditions. I was shooting with low ISO film and processing it in my kitchen sink with sometimes dirty water from the old tenement plumbing. However, with modern scanning technology, I could now pull out all of what these old negatives had to offer. It was also around this time that my elderly parents, who both had Alzheimer’s and a slew of other maladies, were in the end stages of their lives. (My previous book, Oculus, explores the connection between images and memory, in part, in reaction to their dementia). After their deaths, in my mourning, I dug deeper into the archived material from the 1980s sitting in my basement. I poured over the contact sheets and started pulling things off.
“If you are working as an insider you should portray the world with the perspective of an insider.”
I was going back into my invisible city to confront the dead—looking at friends that died, looking at the past in this city of the dead that no longer existed. And I found these living moments; heard the voices of the dead: recalled people and events that invigorated my memories and reminded me of the life that once was. I compulsively began to work and scan, but it was an overwhelming task to process all that material. I hired two assistants and over months started filling my walls with these pictures of the dead. I fashioned a structure, a “night walk,” and began a journey, trying to conjure this lost place and time. In the end (again) the Paz poem did not fit and I left it out of the book (it wasn’t in the right voice), but happily it gave me a basis for the book’s structure and a starting point to work from—as well as a title. I sent my editor at Steidl some pdfs as I was working the layout, since Invisible City was already in production. I got a message that the new catalog was coming out with Invisible City, and they asked for a description for the catalog for Night Walk—along with final layouts! They said, “We don’t have this material here… can you send it in?” It was never even a question of do you want to do this, what do you have, what are you thinking… just: we need the material to go to press.
Some people may feel Night Walk is closer to their experience of that time. It’s centered more on public spaces, whereas Invisible City is for me more of an internally driven piece. Iris Rose, a friend and performance artist active in the scene back then (and in several pictures in the book!) emailed me after seeing the Night Walk book-trailer with the Sonic Youth soundtrack I put together. She said “So cool! I can’t wait to own a copy of this book. I think it really captures the excitement of the time.”
ALEX: Invisible City is a personal documentary about the time and place you were living in, while with Night Walk you worked with material from a time and place that don’t exist anymore, it looks like a record of situations and people but reads like a kaleidoscope. Do you feel the long time gap between making the images and editing the book influenced the outcome of Night Walk?
KEN: Yes, of course. It had to. But I wasn’t ready to make Night Walk back in the 1980s. I held some images back partially because I felt that people wouldn’t look at the pictures the way I intended them to be seen. With Invisible City I made a conscious decision not to show a lot of the underground scene. Many people at the time only saw that work in overt capitalistic terms. They wanted know what was the name of this place or that, to know who was in the picture here and who was hanging out where. I felt that discourse took away from actually looking at the work and engaging the images as a projection of my intent. I didn’t care about the gossip or the spectacle in relation to the economic interests of the people and places I depicted. I was, and still am, interested in spectacle in relation to human obsession, but I think the gap in years will help people to look at the work differently. Most of those places are gone now and can’t be experienced outside my images. And this is important as well: given the personal nature of some of the work, I’m not sure I was ready to show all of it back then. Now the work has the distance of time, as do I. People can look at the work and the book without it needing it to be connected to any actual place. The depictions can serve purely as metaphor, or as an analog to human urges and desires. I think I can be more reflective towards the depiction of those living and dead in the pictures now, as can others. Time has given me perspective and made it easier for me to work with the material’s visual syntax. However, that all said, I think the feeling I wanted to convey with Night Walk was borne mostly out of a current urgency, out of a contemporary need. I made Night Walk to express vitality about being alive in the world in the face of current loss.
ALEX: Before the 2014 Steidl reprint, Invisible City acquired an underground cult status and it was very hard to come by. So why did you decided to publish a free online version of it in 2012 with The Photobook Club?
KEN: Invisible City was becoming lost to a generation as it sat in locked archives and hidden in the bookcases of a small number of collectors. Over the years, there’s been a shift to digital media and I felt that without a digital presence at all it would be difficult to bring consciousness of the project forward—even with a reprint of the physical book available. It was time for a new generation to learn about Invisible City. And I thought the online discussions by the Photobook Club and the free iBook was a great way to do that. The free iBook study was an outgrowth of The Photobook Club’s philosophy to get material of classic photobooks into the consciousness of people who couldn’t otherwise experience the books; a great tool to raise awareness. The digital piece, although extensive, doesn’t replicate or replace the book experience though. But I hope they do complement each other. Having both an affordable reprint available (that is exquisitely produced) and a digital study available simultaneously is a rare privilege.
ALEX: What are your current interests and projects and what are you going to do next?
My current interests are much as they have always been: to investigate the image, our cultural use of it and my relationship to it. These days it takes me, perhaps ironically, more in the direction of writing and cultural analysis, especially since I feel a cogent critical approach has been lacking. Photography has been consumed by market interests in the museum and gallery sphere, obsessed at times with what I think of as somewhat obscure debates in the theoretical sector and overwhelmed by the flood of technological innovation and creation in the popular arena. Sometimes I wonder about the overlap of each upon the other. And I wonder about my relationship to it all as just another photographer. I realize though that I’m the product of a particular way of emphasizing the world through images. And I come out at a very particular time in the history of the technological image. My way is a way of seeing and expressing the world that is dying or proliferating depending on how you look at it. What I do next is quite open right now but I think my concerns and perspective should (and will) guide me. I’ve written for FOAM and I’ve contributed essays to a few books lately: for Aperture, 10×10 American Photobooks, an article for The Photobook Review, a piece for Kassel, as I was on their Fotobook Award jury a while back. I just turned in a piece for a book that the Indie Photo Library is issuing. I’ve also been playing at the edges of some multimedia investigations, having recently finished book trailers for Invisible City and Night Walk and collaborated with Alan Rapp on a piece that’s available through Daylight Digital called A Suspension of Memory. It distills work from the two Steidl books, but it’s also a poke in a new direction, utilizing sound, text and image. There are many possibilities out there. And I hope to grab onto more.
“I edited Invisible City during the period my building was abandoned. There was a drug war raging in my hallway. I was 26, 27. Night Walk was edited through the process of mourning both my parents who died within a day of each other, 26, 27 years after I edited Invisible City.”
ALEX: How did you come to the final edit of Invisible City? And how does it different from Night Walk edit? What lead your editing process?
KEN: I edited Invisible City during the period my building was abandoned. There was a drug war raging in my hallway. I was 26, 27. Night Walk was edited through the process of mourning both my parents who died within a day of each other, 26, 27 years after I edited Invisible City. My parent’s deaths brought me back to those I lost during the AIDS crises and the images I shot in the 1980s.
They are both fundamentally very “existential” books. Both were made in reaction to what I was experiencing at the time I was editing them. In my edit I looked at the accumulated meaning I might distill from a sequence of images made in a particular place and time (1980s downtown New York), but did so at two very different junctures in my life. I decided content and the sequence of both books with a shift of one image suggested by different my publishers for purely technical reasons. Jack Woody said Invisible City needed an image for a title page. Gerhard Steidl pointed out that Night Walk needed to be reduced by one spread to conform to a number of pages that would fit comfortably in each signature. But in each book I was conscious of the importance of leading the reader through an experience.
These two books use two different narrative structures. Invisible City is a non-linear narrative. As should be, sequencing is both visually and conceptually motivated. I considered formal relationships of light and dark, scale and distance, conceptual elements within the frame of place in relation to people and to what is going on in the frame, how things look, etc. But with Invisible City there is no time-sequenced narrative between images, no story line to say this happens before that. There is nothing to “tell” that way in Invisible City. Images are presented “as is,” everything is happening simultaneously, unconnected, all at once–and yet the images are connected by demeanor and tone and place (and time). The world unfolds before you, image upon image. The viewer/reader has the job (or privilege) to piece it all together as they create an idea of this Invisible City. I didn’t want this to be a story about a particular person who is depicted in the photos. So no one person is in more than a few of the pictures—or at least recognizable that way—there is a woman who is repeated over and over, again and again. But then this woman becomes a cypher for other things and other ideas, of sexual awakening, etc.
Night Walk is an experiential travelogue though a hypothetical evening. I think I’ve edited the books in a similar way, as my eye and mind see fit, but this time a careful consideration was paid to the repetition of particular individuals and of a journey through a long extended night. I set the stage with the cover image and the front-end page. The first image of the book is of someone going somewhere and then it cuts to close-ups of individuals. First they are in very public places and then as the evening progresses we move onto other environments, places with different feelings or different kinds of crowds or activities, different kinds of intimacy. I wanted to play with this idea. What does 9pm feel like, 11pm? 2am? 4am? Through the course of the book, the mood mutates and the point of view (the protagonist, the camera?) shifts, making observations, eventually experiencing quietude, intimacy and ecstasy. We end where we began: the cover image is now repeated as a walk into the morning light of the next day. The sojourn is complete, but we are walking into the unknown, and with that, towards other possibilities.
ALEX: George Orwell, Baudrillard, Kafka, Borges,Mumford… I was surprised to see many quotes at the end of Invisible City and I enjoyed to see them marked as “notes”, they give a vertigo of possible readings, once I go back looking for the dystopian city, another time, Kafka denies the very existence of any “common reality” to document with his remark “All is imaginary”, Borges is imprisoned in a labyrinth, Orwell saves photographs from destruction. These “notes” are possible keys for reading Invisible City but they also put in dialogue writers and sensibilities from different countries and ages, how do you feel these notes interact with the book?
KEN: Because Invisible City was such a personal journey I felt to focus on the voice of any particular author wasn’t something I wanted to do. I could have written something myself, but I didn’t feel that anything I could have written at the time would have been appropriate either. I have crazy stories from that era, as you’ve read in this interview (and there’s more! believe me), but again, I didn’t want (and still don’t want) those stories to sit next to the images. And to commission someone (as was, and still is the conventional thing to do)… No, the images, the book speaks on its own unattended. But on the edges… I thought that some kind of text could offer something interesting. I settled on the Mumford excerpt as an entry point. It sets the mood: especially juxtaposed to the image of the hulking abandoned building. That was the view I awoke to every day out my bedroom window, so that quote has a lot of meaning for me. But here’s a secret: I actually twist the meaning of that whole paragraph completely. The text was meant to be an argument for the establishment of museums. But I took out the last words of the sentence: “then, in sheer defense, modern man invents the museum.” (Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, page 4). To me I was already living in a kind of museum, an abandoned place of the dead, a place of history, with all the weight that embodies. I felt that excerpt was so well conceived of by Mumford. And a perfect fit for where and how I used it.
“We synthesize the world through our senses and through experience. But we carry within us the voice of others, the ideas and sensibilities of those who have influenced us.”
I sought out Mumford’s work years earlier after I discovered a quote from him on the bathroom wall of the Strand bookstore where I worked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The quote read “In New York life masquerades as pathology. —Lewis Mumford, 1937.” That juxtaposition of text and environment was a nice surprise for me. I think the disjunction of text and image/context lends new meaning to the excerpts. And using them juxtaposed to the images lends something more to the book as a whole too. The end notes of Invisible City presents a space to deepen an experience, to qualify what came before. I didn’t want an epilogue to wrap it up neatly. The text is offered only as notes. They are, as you say, a key, not only to my mindset but to open the work up to other ideas and to make larger connections across time and other experiences/other voices.
There is a duality to experience that TS Eliot calls a paradox. I use an excerpt by him at the end of Night Walk. Eliot says, “Every experience is a paradox in that it means to be absolute, and yet is relative; in that it somehow always goes beyond itself and yet never escapes itself.” Images also engage in that same paradox. Every image is a paradox that means to be absolute, and yet is relative; that somehow always goes beyond itself and yet never escapes itself. I wanted the text at the end of Invisible City to play with those kinds of dualities, those kinds of paradoxes of the image and of experience. And so the text at the end of Invisible City takes two basic forms as well: there is the subjective/emotional/poetic (Borges or Kafka) and the philosophical/theoretical (Mumford or Baudrillard, etc.). Umberto Eco in his book, The Open Work, also notes the dualistic nature of texts: that they have a specificity of meaning, but that they also have open-ended connotations. This duality and the disjointed quality of how the notes played against the images excited me.
We synthesize the world through our senses and through experience. But we carry within us the voice of others, the ideas and sensibilities of those who have influenced us. This colors both our perceptions and our experiences. The voices of my Invisible City texts emphasize those dualities; those paradoxes: those inescapable spaces between what we perceive and what we think we know and the voices of others that have spoken before us. The text excerpts speak very much in the voice of their origin and can’t help but reference their sources, yet they speak concretely to the ideas and experiences shown in Invisible City. Ultimately it’s up to the reader to decide where the journey goes and what they see or don’t see in front of their eyes.
When Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities speaks to the Emperor, the Emperor believes Polo’s Invisible Cities exist. And in a certain sense they do because they tell us something about the nature of ourselves. Yours and mine, we all inhabit our own invisible city. I showed you mine. They are just images, but they speak the truth.
Text © Ken Schles, Alex Bocchetto
Images of books by Alex Bocchetto
Images © Ken Schles
Invisible City and Night Walk © Ken Schles and Steidl Verlag
Images courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery
(All rights reserved. Text @ Alex Bocchetto and Akina Books. Images @ Ken Schles and courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery and Steidl Verlag.)