Invisible City/Night Walk 1983-1989, is an exhibition featuring the work of photographer Ken Schles. Documenting New York’s Lower East Side in the 1980s, Schles provided an insight into the neighbourhood's street corners and lost youth. The exhibition coincides with the release of Night Walk, a companion to Schles’s monograph Invisible City which was originally printed in 1988.
Why did you feel the need to capture life around the Lower East Side while you were living there in the early 1980s?
It's what I did; it was about where I lived. It wasn’t so much that I was making a diary — but it was my artwork and my artwork was about my life at the time. Making images is what I loved to do. I felt that I needed to find a project that I could really be consumed with and I found myself in this place and in a time where it seemed everything was falling apart.
Let me backtrack, before Invisible City I worked freelance, printing photographs for the Magnum photographer Gilles Peress. I considered him my mentor. Gilles had just published his landmark book Telex Iran: In The Name of the Revolution. Besides printing some of that project, I also worked proofing 20 years of photographs he had taken in Northern Ireland. He was an inspiration to me as I began a journey into my private Invisible City. Through his work and by his intellect, I learned a lot about the possibilities of photography and the possibilities of the photographic book. I watched him travel the world; get involved in difficult conflict situations. After a while, I began to question his need to go so far afield. I felt there was so much going on right in my own backyard; so much change happening in my own neighbourhood. I came to realise that it was important for me to develop a relationship with what was going on around me. Using the camera was a great tool for that, a great way for me to understand where I was in this very particular place and time.
There was a lawlessness to everything that could work to your advantage or your disadvantage
Considering all the social and economic problems of the postwar deindustrialization, the collapse of the inner city, drug wars, rise of AIDS and racial tensions, were you not scared of your surroundings – particularly in the Lower East Side?
Yeah, it was fucked up. And I had no real support system. I moved out of my house when I was 17. My parents weren’t happy about the idea that I was going to go to art school, so they basically just cut me off. The truth was that they were also very afraid of where I was headed. My parents were both children of immigrants; they always aspired to get out of the inner city. For them to see me in New York City was difficult. They didn’t like it how I was going back into the breach.
They didn't understand what I was doing or why I was doing it. They were simple working class people. Art made no sense to them, they couldn't grasp why someone would want to study art or do the things I did. There I was, I want to go to art school. And they were like, good luck.
So, after I lost my first apartment (my roommate got into dope), I moved deeper into the East Village onto Avenue B — which at that point was the other side of the DMZ. Other parts of NYC had an appearance of normality, even though no matter where you were, bad stuff could happen to you. When you were on Avenue B though, you were on the ‘other side’ of it. There was no protection, the police hardly came around, and everything was bombed out. People didn't tend to fuck with you, because you were also on this ‘other side,’ but watch out, because you could easily be dead.
There was a lawlessness to everything that could work to your advantage or your disadvantage. On the interface between the two worlds, the waking world, the ‘normal’ New York, and this other place—that’s where I felt it was most dangerous. That’s where ‘regular’ people would go to buy drugs, on this interface membrane. Where there was an exchange of money and desperation. Once you were on Avenue B though, if you kept to yourself and didn’t talk to the people trying to hit you up, you tended to not get fucked with all that much. But, if you looked the wrong way, or talked to somebody the wrong way, then yeah, you would have a lot of problems.
And you never thought that maybe it was all too much and that you should move?
I had no money. I had no resources. I got the place on Avenue B. I had a place to live, a place I could afford, a place to work. Where should I go? Where could I go? My previous apartment on 12th Street, between 2nd and 3rd. That was a pretty nice apartment — the street was a bit of a mess though. 12th Street was where all the hookers hung out. I lost that apartment when my roommate got into heroin while I was in England, photographing squatters in Brixton. When I got back to New York, I found out that my roommate hadn't been paying the rent. My landlord came after me, and I couldn't come up with all the back rent that was owed. I lost the lease and ended up floating around a little bit, until I found a sub-let on Mott Street. That’s where I started Invisible City — there’s a self portrait of me naked in front on my bath tub on Mott Street – on the title page of Invisible City.
I felt that I needed to do it for my own sanity, just so I could make sense of it all
As a young man did you have any expectation of what your photos would become? How popular they would be?
No, not really. I went to art school, and I wanted to be able to work as an artist. I had this idea that somehow I could make a modest living as an artist and to continue to do my work. I thought that somehow the work would speak for itself, and allow me to continue working. I found that the reality was very different. When I was making the work I found that, at first, people didn't really want to look at it. It reminded them of what was difficult, and what they perceived as problems in New York. But, I also felt that I was capturing something that no one had really captured quite in the same way, in such a personal way. Plus, I felt that I needed to do it for my own sanity, just so I could make sense of it all. I didn't really have a sense of its historical importance at the time, but I did feel that I was a part of a historical wave, a wave that was moving through New York.
I was caught up in this historical sweep, but also there was, and always has been, this huge hype about what New York was. However, my day-to-day reality was not in syncopation with the hype I heard at the time. For my grandparents it was ‘the streets are paved with gold in New York’, it was where immigrants came to better their lives. My father struggled growing up in New York during the depression and dropped out of high school to help support his family. His story was not my experience either. Same with my older brothers: they were trying to get out of the Vietnam War and came of age during the turmoil of the 1960s. That also wasn't my experience of New York. I found that my experience was something else yet again. But it still was in New York City; it was still in this place so full of so many stories.
There was a TV crime drama called The Naked City in the 1950s, it was based on the photo book that Weegee did in the 1940s called Naked City. The beginning of the TV show starts "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them." Invisible City was about me trying, through images, to understand what my story was – living in this place; what it was all about. You know, that’s the thing about photography, it’s only a slice of something, an aspect taken from a very particular direction, at a very particular time. It’s a totality composed of reality, but if you turned and faced another way you’d see something completely different. What I captured, at that moment in time, that was my New York. I photographed my invisible city.
Sometimes it was a horror show over here
So in terms of whether or not I knew it would have this impact now, whether or not I would get this response now, no. I couldn’t. I wasn't expecting it. I was expecting to continue my work and continue a modest life. After the book came out in 1988, it quickly went out of print and developed a cultish following; became highly sought after. It didn't change my life particularly, not immediately. I was still struggling to make a living. I would hear stories and meet people who were like, wow this is cool. I’d find out people moved to New York after seeing the book, which I couldn’t understand at all. For me, its not like I was trying to say that this place or life was a cool thing or it’s cool because it’s fucked up. The book for me was never so one-dimensional. Sometimes it was a horror show over here, yes, certain parts of it were. Sometimes it was like living in zombieland with all the junkies, who would try and claw their way in through your windows. Friends would come back to their apartments, and junkies would have taken sledge hammers and gone through six layers of brick to break into their apartment or lay a plank of wood five stories up across an airshaft to break into an open window. Crazy, crazy stuff. But in Invisible City, there’s also a love story woven into the pictures. It may not appear that way at first glance. I was in my 20s, and I had fallen in love. I convinced my girlfriend at the time to come and squat with me in my abandoned building, and she moved out of her legal apartment. There are many pictures of her in Invisible City. There’s a love story there and me there’s me trying to make sense of all the devastation in this bombed out place in the time of AIDS.
Why are all your photos from Invisible City and Night Walk in black and white?
As a student I would shoot in colour, but I didn't like the print materials. The only real choice then was to make C-prints, and I didn't like their plastic quality. I liked shooting transparencies. I shot transparencies, and there were a lot of people starting to use colour in an artful way. I wasn't against the practice; in fact my professors thought I was pretty good with colour. When you’re processing colour, you really needed to have very stringent temperature controls, and in my tenement I couldn't set up anything up like that. At the time, I was working mostly out of my kitchen. It also made more sense when working in low light conditions to shoot in black and white. I didn’t like using a flash all that much, which would have been necessary. Ultimately it was for multiple reasons: I liked the way black and white abstracted the world; I could work processing the material in my apartment under primitive conditions, and I could shoot in more difficult low light situations.
How involved in the curation of the exhibition were you and why are there only 40 of your photos on show?
Between the two books there are a lot of images. The gallery needed direction in terms of what I wanted to say with the exhibition. We talked about how best to give a sense of the work. We talked about ways of putting the exhibition up, from nailing the prints to the walls, to painting the walls black—and how to make the prints. I pretty much spent all of last summer experimenting with different ways to print using different materials, different papers, different methods working with expert printers, testing—everything. I settled upon making pigment prints and making the prints myself, because using that technique, I was able to make the images exactly as I saw fit while making them tonally consistent from image to image, as they were all shot under very different conditions and the negatives varied quite a bit. I wanted to play a bit with the image sizes, so we have two different sizes for the images in the show. I put together a pretty dense exhibition proposal, and the gallery was really excited by it. I was very detailed with the layout, but we all knew that it was going to be much too dense for the gallery. To space things properly we had to leave many images out and the gallery was particularly helpful with that. In the end, the New York exhibition was a collaborative effort. I’ll be doing a show in the Netherlands opening the beginning of April, where there will be a lot more photographs.
Can you tell us a little bit more about this Netherlands exhibition?
Yeah, it’s through a photography foundation known simply as ‘Noorderlicht’, in a town in the north of the Netherlands, a town named Groningen, at the Noorderlicht Gallery. I’ve worked with them quite a bit, showing my work since the late 1990s. They’re a great foundation, supporting a large diversity of photographers. I’ve shown more work there than any other place in the world.