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Invisible City, Night Walk, Steidl

A Night Walk

108.84Apr13-18In 2011, Harper Levine from Harper’s Books asked three photographic book artists to make something special to show in Harper’s exhibition booth in the Grand Palais during Paris Photo. Alec Soth took his book, Sleeping Along the Misssissippi, and replaced all the images with c-prints, John Gossage changed the “direction” of his book, The Pond, so a reader would take a reverse journey through the book back to front. I made a hand crafted maquette from work that I hadn’t looked at in years: I opened the box where I stored my original materials from Invisible City and fashioned an alternate take on the book using texts and images that hadn’t landed in the original and had never been published.

During the making of Invisible City (in the late 1980s) I set aside a number of selects. Some of the material didn’t fit the mood of the book. Some didn’t work with the final sequence. And of the range of text snippets I saved, there was a particular Kathy Acker description of my neighborhood that I absolutely loved, but no matter how much I thought it a dead ringer to my experience, it didn’t work its way into the book. Maybe it felt too specific or, rather, not specific enough. It reiterated what my images did too closely but didn’t build upon them further. There was a poem by Octavio Paz, called Night Walk, that gave voice to a mysterious and dark world, but stylistically held too close to the fantastic and evoked a quiet desert village instead of the desiccated urban slum that I documented. Even so, I was still drawn to its descriptive qualities (hence the adopted title for my new book). I admired how it adhered to the idea that we psychically conflate disembodied images into our experience of the world, and that these “other” sensibilities deeply color our perception of reality. In the end, neither of these two texts ended up in Night Walk— but reading them again 25 years later got me thinking…

062.86-01Jan02-08I have no doubt that what I made for Harper was an important failed first attempt. It held too closely to Invisible City without its own voiceAnd who needed another lesser Invisible City when a reprint was on its way? I wanted to create something with a full, clear voice of its own. I pulled files from the basement and looked more closely at what sat idling in my closet. I found in this “new” material a vitality that conjured the dead. Feelings were brought back to the surface: feelings that I hadn’t attended to for many years. I needed to open this archive again soon anyway, at least to access material I needed for Gerhard Steidl’s reprint of Invisible City—and to prepare for a project I was to start with Matt Johnston, founder of the first franchise of the Photobook Club—a crowd sourced study of Invisible City. I also needed to begin preparing for an exhibition of Invisible City in Turkey. Nonetheless, I see that in hindsight I was taking the first steps towards something even larger.

Unquestionably all these activities had laid the groundwork for Night Walk. But it was the ensuing months of inexorable decline and then the eventual death of both my parents that got me to fully dissect my 1980s archive. Delving into that work became a process of mourning. I obsessed over reams of material. I didn’t leave a contact sheet untouched. Nor could I tear myself away from the computer: I scanned and edited and printed hundreds of images—to the point of sickness. As I looked at sequences pinned upon my wall, I was reminded of all the people I had lost: of a life I struggled with in that place long ago. I immersed myself in the work, saw connections I hadn’t noticed before. I reacquainted myself with old friends now long dead, rediscovered images I hid from public view or thought too personal to share.

I am older now: a middle-aged man. I’m no longer the 20-something year-old I once was. I have a new book to share—one very different from Invisible City. As I mapped out its structure, as the images fell into place, I am surprised at the story these images have to tell. The voices of the dead again whisper in my ear. I remember the comforting murmur of confidences shared in empty bars late at night.  I remember the laughter of the dead, and hear it echoing in my thoughts. Music by Sonic Youth.

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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

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