Ken Schles

Invisible City/Night Walk

Interview by Peggy Sue Amison

Invisible City was a cult book. After publication in 1988 it very quickly went underground and out of print. The New York Times selected it as a notable book of the year, and after that, it was gone. At the time, some critics rejected the format as too small while traditionalists described my use of bleeds as “anti-photography”. Peter Galassi eventually included Invisible City in an exhibit at the MoMA, but even by then it was already out of print for several years. The book was expensive to own; difficult to find: it was disappearing onto the shelves of collectors.

When the Internet came around Invisible City didn’t have much presence. While known in the photographic community, its unavailability only added to its cult status, something I felt was problematic. It started appearing in volumes on the history of the photobook (or not, which was then hotly debated online). Prices skyrocketed. While valuation for many years hovered around $800 a copy, suddenly it reached $1.2k to $2k a copy. Once I saw Invisible City listed as high as $10,000.

Sitting in his office, Phil Block (one of the founders of ICP and I were talking about how Invisible City, while appreciated by a certain audience, was becoming forgotten to a new generation. I decided it would be nice to make a 25th anniversary reprint, still some five years off. Jack Woody, the original publisher at Twelvetrees Press, wasn’t as keen on a reprint, because the technology for printing in photogravure (the original printing method used) had become obsolete. Much of the beauty and object quality of Invisible City came from this particular process, and this was something neither of us wanted to lose.

Then, in 2011, within a few short months, a multiplicity of events conspired to set the stage for a reprint. These events also compelled me to examine other work from that same period. In the UK, at the University of Coventry, the online group Phonar selected Invisible City as a ‘best’ narrative photobook. Matt Johnston, who helped form the Phonar group, told me he had been developing a personal project through something he called The Photobook Club – an online crowd sourced study of iconic photobooks, in an attempt to bring those projects to a new audience. And – he would enjoy my participation. Independently, Howard Greenberg showed the book to Gerhard Steidl. Howard knew that Steidl had developed a new printing methodology that brought back certain qualities of photogravure and that Gerhard had been interested in reprinting select older titles. He thought Invisible City might be of interest to Gerhard. And Harper Levine, of Harper Books, asked me to make a new piece related to Invisible City for him to display at Paris Photo. Also Jason Eskenazi, approached me to exhibit Invisible City at a photo festival in Bursa, Turkey. Prior to these events I hadn’t considered the work in fifteen years.

There was a shift. A threshold had been crossed. New York City was a radically different place than it had been in my photographs. My work was now connected to a mythologised vision of a pre-gentrified, pre-Internet New York. And photography itself had changed: the way we looked at and shared images had shifted. I think both of these elements conspired to connect the work to another era and sparked new outside interest.

Night Walk grew initially from revisiting some outtakes Invisible City for purposes of discussion. I eventually mined my archives developing these new projects around Invisible City. Gerhard Steidl offered carte blanche for the reprint: I could change the format or add images, as he had done with Kouldelka’s Gypsies or Davidson’s Subway. But I felt strongly that thirty years on I shouldn’t mess with my early editorial decisions for they had become part and parcel of the book’s legacy. I wanted people to see Invisible City in its original form. I played with the Night Walk piece I made for Harper. I continued thinking what might accompany Invisible City’s re-release. Then a galvanising event came with the death of my parents.

My parents died within a day of each other in 2012. In my process of mourning, I thought about the many deaths of people I once knew, especially around the AIDS and drug crises in my early 20s, in the mid-1980s, and the death of my brother around the time Invisible City was published. My parents had been in a long decline for many years, both afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, which I explored in my book, Oculus. My exploration of the connection between images and memory, in part, was a reaction to their senility. I looked at old contact sheets from my East Village days and remembered all those people who died. I remembered their presence so well. In my mind I could still vividly hear the their voices. And I was struck with the vitality of the people in my images. In a box of Invisible City material, I found a poem by Octavio Paz, called Night Walk. It resonated for me. I became obsessed with making my own ‘night walk.’ What began at first as an exercise now became an obsession: and then a book.

These two books, Invisible City and Night Walk are testaments to both the times they discuss and the times in which they were made. In one sense they are bookends. One made at the time, the other looking back. Invisible City came about when so many cultural phenomena overlapped and existed, for just a brief moment, in one place. I wanted to capture my sense of it before it all went away.

I believe the power of Night Walk comes from me experiencing death and reflecting upon past deaths while looking to these images, these fragments from the past, as totems of death’s opposite. Night Walk is about vitality and ephemerality, things that transcend the book’s focus of time and place. I wrote the following epigraph specifically to address these issues and to focus the reader’s attention on what is to come:

“I lay these fragments before you. What has since been rebuilt now reverts back to its former state of skeletal ruin. The dead reappear, hurry about and whisper their siren songs into your ear. Where once the journey was open-ended and uncertain, it now leads to an inevitable end. The living recognize in the past only what the living choose to remember or refuse to forget. In truth the past never reveals itself so readily or so fully — for even the dead once lived lives of complication and consequence, immeasurably filled with uncertainty and promise.”

For me the significance of the book is not that the book is set in some past, but that it resonates with a presence and vitality that I experience in the present. This is why I ended the book with the quote from T.S. Eliot on the paradox of experience being both absolute yet subjective and why I dedicated the book to the “memory of those who died in the scourge of AIDS and violence that gripped the East Village during the 1980s.”

All images courtesy of the artist. © Ken Schles

Ken Schles is an American photographer who has authored five monographs: Invisible City (Twelvetrees Press, 1988; reprint Steidl Verlag, 2014); The Geometry of Innocence (Hatje Cantz, 2001); A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures In Our Heads (White Press, 2007); Oculus (Noorderlicht, 2011) and Night Walk (Steidl Verlag, 2014). His work is also held in more than 100 museum and library collections throughout the world. Forthcoming exhibitions include Invisible City/Night Walk 1983—1989 at Noorderlicht Gallery from 4 April — 7 June 2015. 

Daisuke Yokota

Back Yard

Essay by Peggy Sue Amison

There is a revolution going on in the works of emerging photographer, Daisuke Yokota, a revolution that links the past with the future of Japanese photography and reflects the artist’s desire to capture ideas of how memory is affected by the passage of time. His images appear at first to be the remains of a science fiction film set, illuminated by a silvery light that blasts everything like an atomic explosion to the point of removing all detail and origin. A futuristic vision, yet within its foundation is an ongoing thread continuing a tradition that emerged in the 1960’s – twenty years before the photographer was born.

This new way of seeing began with the emergence of Provoke, published by Takuma Nakahira and Koki Taki in 1968. The artists and publishers of this seminal magazine presented new visual ideas and explored more intimate realities, ripping the medium of Japanese photography from its past, more controlled origins of strict reportage and social documentary. The artists published in Provoke freed image making in Japan, pushing photography into an exciting new territory.

Daisuke Yokota takes an active part in this ongoing visual conversation. His use of experimentation as a vehicle to eliminate information and narrative, continues what Daido Moriyama et al began when they responded to life in post-war Japan with an aesthetic known as ‘are-bure-boke’ (literally ‘grainy, blurry, out-of focus’), which allowed photography to be considered strictly for its material nature and removed any sense of a record of reality. They reached out, as Taki wrote in the Provoke manifesto, “…to grasp fragments of reality far beyond the reach of pre-existing language, presenting materials that actively oppose words and ideas … materials to provoke thought.”

Similarly, Yokota says multiple processing and experimentation are also integral to his practice. “There are no stories in my work. There is only what the viewers find within it for themselves. I am more interested in exploring time and multiple possibilities that exist in reality.”

Yet Yokota also uses multiple layers of re-photographing to obtain happy accidents and thereby assimilate his ideas of how memory is shaped and evolved over time. He explains: “We recollect a single experience from the past again and again, but never in the same way twice. Memories are experienced in relation to the present. As we go through the act of repeatedly recalling our memories, I believe these memories change in relation to what is happening to us now. Although physical experience of time is singular, time at a conscious level can multiply with each recollection of memory and the different experiences of time generated by these actions pass in parallel to a physical time. By recreating those multiplying memories via a series of recollecting actions, I use them as important data that tell me about my current self and my surrounding world.”

The photographs that make up his series Back Yard illustrate this exploration. They are gracefully messy in their appearance. “During the development of my film,” Yokota says, “I stick rubbish to it and experiment with uneven development. I purposely add natural phenomenon to digital data.”

His endless re-photographing from colour to black and white, along with the use of traditional darkroom techniques, such as over processing and solarisation, break down each image to capture the passage of time in a physical way. Although barely recognisable on the one hand, there is a striking feeling of familiarity, which invites openness. “I try to keep away from figuring out the exact place, or person in my images. In this way the viewers can easy to put themselves into them,” he adds.

In terms of presentation, Yokota has utilised zines as a way of disseminating works such as Site and Back Yard; “The difference between zines, photo books and exhibitions lies in how the viewer participates with the work,” he says. “With a book, both the viewer and I must step back and think about photography in an active and intimate way. Publishing also allows the possibility for more viewers to experience the work through the mass production of zines.”

In these self-published zines, he makes his works accessible for a wider audience, but he also uses them to further experiment with his imagery and add another layer through his choice of paper and publishing methods. He has also created publications in dialogue with other artists, as evidenced in Nocturnes, six slim volumes by the photographic collective AM Projects of which Yokota is a member. Again, zines, flyers and photobooks also have a long lineage in Japanese photography dating back to the 1960’s. When the photo market was virtually non-existent in Japan, these outlets were the only means of accessing the medium. Japanese photographers included these methods of mass distribution to their practice out of a sheer necessity to communicate and exchange ideas within their artistic community. Ink, paper, methods of construction etc were all hugely important, making intense study and understanding of the details of publishing paramount to photographers.

The subjects in Yokota’s work balance earthy elements with looming banal architectural shapes and room interiors, sometimes featuring twisted, faceless silhouettes. In this way the artist takes his audience into a realm of surrealist expression, which balances urban materiality against nature’s organic forms, while striving toward a similar notion of ‘pure’ imagery as evinced by Daido Moriyama, Yatuka Takanashi and Taki.

Yokota compares his working methods to those of an electronic musician; he says he employs his own version of static, noise, reverb and multiple recording processes in a visual way to create a wordless ambience. Mimicking sound layers with visual noise and interference and purposefully blurring all traces of the original draws from his cultural past and explores new ground. Ansel Adams had a theory that each negative is comparable to a composer’s score and the print its performance. With Diasuke Yokota’s own brand of back yard magic he stretches this theory and again pulls it from a classical association, to something decidedly closer to punk rock.

Daisuke Yokota was born in Saitama, Japan in 1983. A graduate of the Nippon Photography Institute, he was selected for the New Cosmos of Photography exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Musuem of Photography in 2008. Yokota is included in the group exhibition with the members of AM projects in their first gallery show, All Colours Will Agree in the Dark at Noorderlicht from 6 April – 18 May, 2013.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Daisuke Yokota