Ken Schles published Invisible City in 1988 while living in an East Village tenement in Manhattan. The New York Times named it a notable book of the year, and in 1992, it was part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. It received awards and acclaim all over the world. Vince Aletti (photo critic at the New Yorker) called Invisible City “hellishly brilliant.” A new book, Night Walk, looks back at that same period of urban neglect and constructs, from previously unpublished work, a walk in the evening air of a pre-Internet downtown New York. A reprint of Invisible City and the publication of Night Walk are forthcoming from Steidl. This Daylight Digital project uses images from both publications. Video and photography are by Ken Schles, with text by Alan Rapp in collaboration with Schles. We are very happy with the results of this pairing, and we hope you will be, too!



—The Editors

When you’re in it, you can’t see past it. Whisper through a portal, a suspension of memory
rings the city, now seen only from a distance at broken angles.

I came to the city. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been here across the whole breadth of my life, but I really don’t recall how I came to be here or exactly when I got here. By the time I thought to look, I couldn’t find any of the people I knew. I questioned if they’d just departed. Maybe they had never been here. Instead of obsessing over this disconcerting fact, I forged what I could with the others, and we nestled together. Villages inserted into this vast and sometimes unbelievable space.

We moved in and out of the echoing flats that preceded us and will outlast our senescence. The builders, people who were once like us, are gone. Like us except that in their building they had purpose and agency. I wondered if they realized that we would be consigned to wander their craft in nullification.

Fortification, occupation, stagnation, violence, vacancy, migration. When the builders made these constructions, there was a reason to build. Once the pinnacle was mounted, the wave crested and retreated. Cities contract like a pupil caught in a sudden blast of light.

I went looking for my people once more. At one point I found myself waiting at the terminal for my brother to arrive. I think he called to say that he was coming. There was a working vending machine that sold food I could afford to eat. I stalked the concourse and brushed against a tide of people heading to the platforms. They carried massive bags, their bundles hanging off their arms and dragging behind them. Small children perched precariously on elbow crooks or trundled their own little packs. Only a few people passed me the other way, their ashen faces telling me that in their hearts they also wanted to turn around and join the passengers departing the city.

A few trains dislodged their uneasy passengers. I crept down a side staircase to see if my brother was held up down below, or was somehow stuck or incapacitated. Even then, one wasn’t allowed to be on the platform without a ticket, but there was very little reason for anyone to enforce this. I couldn’t find him anywhere. Time passed, and I began to wonder if it was my brother that had called me. I picked up and spoke into an empty receiver in the middle of the night. I came to understand that this condition, conflating memories with dreams (or other phantoms of the mind), is pervasive in this place.

Nothing was keeping me from leaving the terminal. But I really had no reason to be anywhere else, so I waited for my brother, or a revenant, for a while longer.

Light from the fires bounces off the low cloud canopy, the sky pools into a cauldron. The city is a husk, once alive and now desiccated. History is hollowed, but only through having involuted itself for this long; every point in every stratum of time acts on the other. We create no space. We take over what we can, we push out and constrict and twist everything up. Each event is relative to every other, yet seems to be at any given point something original: both a cause and a kind of collateral effect. Discrete acts radiate out into a field, back into the past and on up ahead through tomorrow. The interleaving jangle of experience never ceases, moving always to subvert the regiment of memory.

You can’t read the city like a dead site. It accretes even now. We denizens are primitive archaeologists, and we find in these potsherds and arrowheads that the real is effectively archaic. Every layer of the city’s history is a chaos event.

We share this separation; the builders are gone and our agency, however dulled, takes over. We’re together out here, yet utterly alone. We went forth by night.

Because we couldn’t find our people we found each other. When we’re out, we carom off each other into new situations that cause us to contemplate these wonders. Nobody likes a tourist in this theme park of ashes. What do they call it? Nightlife? That’s funny. Watching a dilettante try to bond with a hobo, now that’s hilarious. I’d rather think of it as a tiny zone we temporarily insert into reality so that we can simply exert. No golden gods, no beautiful losers. The semantics of vanity, the question of whether the models that are paid to simply be in attendance—here, in the same scene that we’re in—they are eating better than I am.

When we’re out together, the torsion of the night almost pulls our faces off. Everything seems so electric that I’m really no closer to understanding my companions. I’m forced to confront the inscrutability of rationale, the impenetrability of the human skull—starting with mine. And even this may not be redeeming, but there’s the impulse to seize something palpable from the jaws of this frenzy, a wisp of this unimaginable experience in order to interpret it. But that trace means that I can’t forget it either, even though the only thing I want to do is leave this all behind.

It makes avoiding the brutality all the more interesting, almost like a game. Lurk, watch, and see. Making more of these impossible scenarios, create a fissure to look at them again, reify and ratify. It pitches everything to the same level. Two people fornicating in a trash heap, a child out treading these streets alone in the middle of the night, teeth seen under lips curled in laughter or terror—a continuum of need.

If I call into what I think is inside of me, what comes forth might save me. But if I don’t call into what is inside me, what doesn’t come forth will destroy me. From eye to mind to hand to paper: maybe this is the only way to transform this oblivion.

So, yes, we found each other. But then that is fraying too. As if that insensate distance that lingered between us—whether friends, muses, mates, or hangers-on—was made manifest and we just came apart. Dissolving, dying, disappearing. We couldn’t see as far as the millennium and never thought it would happen. That we’d still be here, yes, but also that the rest of the world would, maybe not. The next stage belies that. This is all happening in other parts of the world at the same time, but we couldn’t see it. We were here, not there.

Some of us are thinking that the puppet authorities of this world are deliberately targeting us. There was never much stock taken in our generation, we the children of the war heroes and the industrialists. Expectations were low and we lived up to them. But the reasons why we are dropping like bugs in a smoke chamber don’t have to do with this; whether by plague or invisible death squads or sheer, less-than-benevolent neglect, something is happening, and there are fewer of us to notice or dissent. We can see it, but that doesn’t mean that we understand it.

The city continues to empty. The forces that suffuse it are ever more monstrous. We feel it—especially when we’re up on the rooftops. We can almost hear the sound of breath borne across the knit of the fall night air. Although it may be just the sound our own ears make. You think you can see more from up there, but it’s a different vision. Street level eyes and street level platitudes; what is the vision and voice up here? Looking past the roof perimeter and on into the city’s space, you sense being on the prow of a great ship that’s incessantly keeling.

From this vantage we see the void out there as well as the void close by. I need to trace these thoughts in a book, thoughts the shapes of the people who have passed, those who are passing, and those who will go forth. If you are in it, we are speaking to you not only across an expanse of time but also across the precession from this life to after. If you are in this book, you are a memory, a cipher, and a hex.



*

I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of words. Some pulled down as they drift through the night, unguarded. Overheard on some plane of being or other.

Language is a problem because it gives a structure to thought that we mistake for the structure of the real. And the real only works because it is shaped in a way we can recognize, understand. Both covet and corrupt. The authorities of this world were smart about that, making what is seem more real by damping it down a bit. You know, if we could truly be in the real, it would blow us apart. This clinking little maquette is matched much better to the human dynamic.

In compiling this book of the dead, I keep compulsively seeking patterns among the faces of the departed. Is there a typology of despair? Could I have read the fate of this person in the sensitive lines around the mouth, the interrogative suspended in the stroma of the iris? All these questions, all these traces, they are here for you to witness.



*

Once the bonds between us have been deracinated, the only way to look is through new eyes.

Time to rip the plywood boards off the windows, and let’s keep stripping. Seeing through the cushions the floor the walls the studs—and into a structure that suffuses everything. You can see through this space too.

With enough attention, and maybe even trying to revive what human care and concern may have pooled, we’ll end up back here, but with a shift from before. Like everyone else, I have been conflating memories with dreams. It is not too far a jump to conflate dreams with hopes. Architecture and hope together keeling and keening, and though we are not of this city, we are still in it. Strip the wood off the windows and see what is beyond me out there.

Afterword

Ken Schles published Invisible City (1988), his first monograph, while still living in an East Village tenement. The book was exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art, was a New York Times notable book of the year and received an award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts for book design. It is included in 802 Photo Books from the M.+M. Auer Collection, a compendium of photobooks important to the medium, noted in 10x10 American Photobooks, a book that outlines significant American photobooks from the last 25 years and cited in Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's The Photobook: A History Volume III. Vince Aletti called Invisible City “hellishly brilliant.” A new book, Night Walk, looks back at that same period of neglect and constructs, from previously unpublished work, a peripatetic walk in the evening air of a lost pre-Internet bohemian downtown New York. A reprint of Invisible City and the publication of Night Walk are forthcoming from Steidl. This project was constructed using images from both publications. Video and photographs are by Ken Schles, with an original text by Alan Rapp in collaboration with Ken Schles.

Bios

Alan Rapp writes, edits, and develops books in the fields of photography, architecture, and design. He has contributed writing to Modern Painters, the Photobook Review, Wired Design, Dwell, Urban Omnibus, and numerous other publications. In 2011 he was US editor of DomusWeb International upon its English-language launch, and served as managing editor of the New City Reader, a weekly newspaper about the convergence of information space and urban space, whose editorial office was installed in the galleries of the New Museum in 2010.

A native New Yorker, Ken Schles has written for Aperture and was a foreign correspondent for the FOAM museum blog. His books are considered “intellectual milestones in photography” (Süddeutsche Zeitung). Oculus was selected a best photobook of 2011. A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures In Our Heads was a finalist for the Rencontres d'Arles Photographie Contemporary Book Award. Schles is a NYFA Fellow. His work is represented in more than 100 library and museum collections throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, Museo D'Arte Contemporanea and LACMA. He studied at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art with William Gedney, Reuben Kadish, Hans Haacke, and Martha Rosler. He was also a student of the legendary Lisette Model at the New School for Social Research.