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Invisible City

Invisible No Longer

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.

About kenschles

Ken Schles is the author of Invisible City (1988; reprint 2015 and 2016), The Geometry of Innocence (2001), A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures In Our Heads (2007), Oculus (2011) and Night Walk (2015 and 2016). His work has been nominated for the Deutsche Börse Prize, exhibited by The Museum of Modern Art, noted by the New York Times Book Review, cited in histories of the medium (Parr/Badger, Auer & Auer, 10x10 American Photobooks) and issued by some of the foremost publishers of our time (Steidl, Hatje Cantz, Twelvetrees Press). They're considered “intellectual milestones in photography” (Süddeutsche Zeitung), “hellishly brilliant” (The New Yorker). Ken Schles’ work is included in private and public collections such as The Museum of Modern Art, The Rijksmuseum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museo d"Arte Contemporanea (MACRO) Testaccio Museum, and more than 100 other museum and library collections world-wide. 
 Ken Schles is a NYFA Fellow. http://www.kenschles.com


4 thoughts on “Invisible No Longer

  1. I remember your book quite fondly. I remember looking at it at the old St. Marks Bookshop when it was first released. I didn’t purchase it. Those images, I was still living it. It was too close. I lived in the East Village for almost 30 years, beginning when it was still called the Lower East Side or Alphabet City. Most of your images conjure up memories of a time that is forever etched in my history. A time no one can really know or understand unless they lived it.

    Looking forward to the reprint. Maybe now I can purchase a copy…

    Posted by Keith Goldstein | June 5, 2014, 10:42 am
    • I hope so, Keith. There should be more copies available this time around, if I have any say. The old St. Marks Books brings lots of memories too. It was where I first researched Twelvetrees Press’ contact information. And where I was so happy to see the book for the first time in a store after it was published. For me, having the book on the New Arrivals table at the old St. Marks Bookshop was a big thrill. It was my first book and I just turned 28. I admired so much of what I found there… Only, very quickly, my bubble was burst when they took the book off the table and off the shelves. They hid the book behind the counter and you had to know about it and ask to see it while being supervised! Talk about invisible. It seems the book was frequently getting stolen —— only to be sold again right outside in front of the store on the sidewalk.

      Posted by kenschles | June 5, 2014, 11:40 am
      • Oh right! I forgot about stolen books being sold outside the shop!

        BTW, I am friends with John and Alisa. I posted something awhile ago about “Invisible City”, and Jon told me he knew you.

        Posted by Keith Goldstein | June 5, 2014, 2:15 pm
  2. John and Alisa are great! Small world. Still, it’s nice to know my work preceded me. I think we may never had made that connection otherwise.

    Posted by kenschles | June 5, 2014, 7:09 pm

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