Ken Schles: “Invisible City” – Portrait of 1980’s Downtown New York

Ken Schles is a photographer and writer, the author of five monographs. A native New Yorker, Schles currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. He is a graduate of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and studied with Lisette Model at the New School for Social Research. Born in 1960, he grew up in a turbulent era and has been engaged in the issues that have shaped his world. As a student at Cooper in the late 70s and early 80s, he helped revamp an ailing photography department. In the 1980s he documented his life in the underground art and club scene and lived in what became an abandoned tenement in the East Village.

USA – 

New York has always been the city of ultimate extremes, extremes in terms of social classes, races, wealth, behaviour. Ken Schles‘s keen observations of the American landscape, in his legendary book ‘Invisible City’, recently re-published by German publisher Steidl, is a provocative document of the East-Village in 80’s, presenting an inside perspective on his sublime youth madness, from his late 20’s.

While living in an apartment on Avenue B in the East-Village, which was lousy with crack addicts and burglars, Schles was creating images in an abandoned building where his neighbour was a woman with three kids, a heroin addict and dealers were using her apartment as a shooting spot.


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In late 80’s, Ken Schles was not happy with just showing his work on some gallery walls and get over with it. And that is how the idea of making a book fell in place. With a cult-following then, Schles legendary book ‘Invisible City’, was a big success in pre-internet age as it was a New York Times notable book of the year in 1988 and had won an award for book design from the American Institute of Graphic Arts. With his traditional love for photography books and fear of loosing to a generation with small number of books, originally published by Twelvetress Press in 1988, Schles wanted to explore the growing interest of the photobook enthusiasts and had published a free online edition of his book with The Photobook Club in 2012 and re-published edition with Steidl in 2014.

His rough, raw and uninhibited style captures the city’s energies with his experimental images of underground parties, couple fucking in the open, or a little boy in a shopping cart holding a toy gun with a murderous expression amongst others the performances and street scenes. Sensory overload of full-bleed black and white images, ‘Invisible City’ is an insightful and powerful depiction of the New York’s one of the dangerous neighbourhood.

Photography Reviewed by Manik Katyal



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