In 2008, at the photo festival in Arles, the photographer Martin Parr dedicated his Playas book to me: To Ken, Invisible no longer. It was one of the first times we met, but immediately I knew the reference was a nod to my first book, Invisible City. By then the book had already been out of print for twenty years and was difficult to find. At the same festival the photographer Anders Petersen greeted me for the first time like a long lost relative, giving me a big hug. He said, “Who is this Ken Schles, who is this man who made Invisible City that is so close to my heart?” For too long both Invisible City and I had remained distant, hard to engage.
It wasn’t my wish. I always wanted to reprint Invisible City. For years Jack Woody (of Twelvetrees Press, the original publisher), pushed it off. In his early days he saw the photobook as a limited edition art work, a seductive and sometimes unobtainable object of desire. For a time something can be said of that. Indeed, I saw (and experienced) the logic of it. Much had accrued because the book had to be investigated, hunted for and discovered. But the book had become such an obscure object of desire people had no access to it. And when something is too inaccessible, the world begins to turn away and forget. As technologies change and modes of distribution shift; as ideas slip in and out of the cultural dialog, the past is slowly erased. When generations turn over, patterns of understanding and ways of seeing are forgotten. So many friends and acquaintances who carried memories of the East Village are no longer with us. Many died in the epidemic of AIDS, some from violence, some from drugs. The past, with its granular detail, ultimately dissolves into mystery, no matter how hard we try to make sense of it or piece it back together. We can’t reconstruct what it was like during those times, but here, look: some artifacts remain.
By the time the Internet arrived Invisible City had little, if any digital presence. And was a reprint even possible? Printing technologies had changed and the process the book was originally printed by (photogravure) no longer existed. I wondered if I should ever reprint it, fearing it would lose its magical photogravure qualities. As time moved forward and the dream of a reprint was deferred further and further down the road, this book (by now exhibited by The Museum of Modern Art, a NY Times notable book of the year, awarded for design by the AIGA, listed in the newly codified history of the photo book: Auer & Auer and now most recently in 10×10 American Photobooks and the seminal Parr/Badger The Photobook: A History Volume III) would garner many accolades. But stranger still was this: as the book became more noteworthy it also became increasingly hidden under a thickening cloud of cult fetishism, rarity and high valuation.
Luckily, several years ago, the publisher Gerhard Steidl, from the German printing house Steidl,* decided to make a reprint of the book (the story is a bit longer and twisty than that, but let’s leave it for now). Steidl had developed a wonderful (and luxurious) five-plate quadratone offset process that brought back the lost feel of photogravure. Few in the industry would (or could) take black and white printing to this level.
Last week I spent some time in Göttingen with Gerhard finalizing the paper selection and other details. In a few weeks, when the paper is delivered, I will go to Göttingen again to work with Gerhard on press to make a reprint of my first (and most celebrated book), 26 years after its initial publication.
Here is a video I made about Invisible City. Music by Live Skull. Please share this post and/or this video. Thank you.
*An award winning documentary on this extraordinary printer is available for streaming on Netflix in the US: How To Make A Book With Steidl.