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In Splendid Isolation (repost)

(FOAM Blog reprint #4) In Splendid Isolation by Ken Schles

I just got my copy of the new issue of FOAM magazine, “Ref.”

“The summer issue of Foam Magazine reflects deeply on relationships between photography and reference. Ref. presents eight portfolios which [sic] refer each in their own way to other photos, a specific visual style or language, or to stereotypical visual elements that we recognize from other photographic genres. They are all portfolios that recognize that nothing exists in splendid isolation,” says the introduction.

Consciousness forms within a dynamic social order. Simply stated, we learn from and internalize our circumstances. As social beings, we compare and contrast what we think we know with what others believe and understand and what experience provides. We don’t invent the truth of our being. That truth just is. But we do give focus to chosen aspects of our experience, which, more often than not, are reflections of shared concerns and questions. And we communicate our inquiries. Our responses are fully bounded by culture and in relation to culture. They reflect upon the social order of things. We are bound to operate within our shared cultural reality. Perhaps this is achingly self-evident: I participate in a world. I reflect upon that world and I do it in a way that I hope others will understand. In society there really is no such thing as “splendid isolation.” Except, perhaps, in death. Splendid isolation is outside of intelligence, outside of communication, outside of social being. When I try to conceive of what splendid isolation truly implies, it doesn’t seem splendid at all.

In 1998 I published a book (A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads, White Press, 2008). In that book I explored my almost sudden realization that the corpus of my work was deeply influenced by and was inseparable from my understanding of canons of photographic work. In that book I chose a sequence of images to highlight that revelation and wrote about that fact as well.

Born into the world, out of the chaos of form and light, we struggle to assign a hierarchical order to what our eyes take in. As we start to organize and prioritize what we see before us, we begin to separate forms, identify them and assign meaning. As we begin to experience the world, we experience what we think to be our own personal world—a world we have already begun to set meaning to. But the meanings we apply are not our wholly our own, they are what we have been taught, explicitly and implicitly. As we start to perceive the ways of the world, we acquaint ourselves with the explicit and implicit histories contained within everything we encounter. We learn about the present and past simultaneously, one informing the other—for even in small ways the history of a thing is integral to understanding the thing itself. Precedent is formative. The universe, and all it contains, reflects a concrete line of causality, which marks and streaks the present. Inevitably, as we acquire more knowledge, our understanding of the world and what it contains changes. At times, these new conceptions conflict with what we thought to be true. As we identify aspects of “what is” and reject others, we use our mental processes to evaluate differences. At times rational and other times irrational, we invent new paradigms to model the new realities we create, encounter and come to recognize. Eventually, we redefine our past by placing emphasis on events and issues that shed light on current conceptions, issues and concerns. We make adjustments to our outlook. And we understand the world a little differently each and every time we gaze at it, for, in an ongoing process, our understanding of what is and what was is in a state of constant transformation. We, by necessity [and practicality], change our conception of a constantly changing world. Arthur Schlesinger writes,


“The present incessantly recreates, reinvents, the past. In this sense, all history, as Benedetto Croce said, is contemporary history. It is these permutations of consciousness that make history so endlessly fascinating an intellectual adventure. “The one duty we owe to history,” said Oscar Wilde, “is to rewrite it.” ”

To be a photographer—and to work with images, is to engage in an ongoing thought experiment. By projecting an image of what is and what has recently been, photographs both define and challenge notions of the present and the past. They present an ideation of the world. In concert with and in opposition to other examples of language and culture, photographs concretize notions, ideas and images about what it is to be alive in the place and time of their creation. And with that we can take heart as we move into the future—as we engage in a discourse on the world.

Both individually and collectively, with nearly seven billion facets that comprise our human world, we point to and parse our experience: Seven billion human mirrors reflecting upon a seemingly infinite number of questions and concerns. Most of those reflections are pure regurgitation and repetition. And it is simply arrogance to suppose that it should be otherwise. For how else could we learn or pass on our legacy if we didn’t repeat what we beheld? The challenge is not in our references, but how we synthesize our references, reject the things that lack purpose and move forward in a meaningful way.

Again, from my book, A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads (White Press, 2008)

T.S. Eliot expressed a belief that:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

Here is a simple truth: we reflect ideas that influence us. What we love—our fixations and our obsessions—all are to be seen in the things we do and can be found in the things we create.

Most times we don’t realize the depth or extent of the references we make when we communicate. We are tied to the world and will happily, unaware, make reference to it until we no longer can do so. And it will be then, and only then, when we are relegated and compelled—because of senescence or death—to an incommunicable nonexistence in an eternal and splendid isolation. In which case, no utterance or reference will be heard, and in fact, no utterance or reference will be made.

Here is a link to my book about reference: A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads (White Press, 2008)


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



  1. Pingback: In Splendid Isolation | seeing images, seeing things - October 10, 2015

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