Top 10

Photobooks of 2020

Selected by Alex Merola and Tim Clark

An annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from the tumultuous year that was 2020 – selected by Editor in Chief, Tim Clark, with words from Assistant Editor, Alex Merola.

1. Andy Sewell, Known and Strange Things Pass
Skinnerboox

Readers of 1000 Words will recall last year’s feature on Known and Strange Things Pass. Now published in book form by Skinnerboox, Andy Sewell’s meditation on the complex entanglement between technology and contemporary life seems more apposite than ever given the socially-distanced times in which we exist – not to mention the illusory propinquity of screen-based connection. Within a kinetic, non-linear sequence of images that aptly push and pull, ebb and flow, cables – carries of immeasurable quantities of data – weave across the Atlantic Ocean’s bed, and resurface on either side in alien concrete facilities; so rarely seen, these are the material infrastructures that both literally and metaphorically underpin our hyper-connected world. Ambitious, understated and fleeting, Known and Strange Things Pass explores the ways in which the ocean and the Internet speak to each other and speak to us, whilst probing photography’s ability to render visible such unknowable entities, infinitely vaster than we are.

2. Poulomi Basu, Centralia
Dewi Lewis

It has been quite the year for Poulomi Basu, whose docu-fictional book Centralia has earnt the artist the Rencontres d’Arles Louis Roederer Discovery Award Jury Prize, and a place on the shortlist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021. Beneath its blood-red, sandpaper-rough cover, Basu takes us through the dense jungles of central India, where a brutal war between the Indian state and Maoist insurgents over land and resources has waged for fifty years, in turn casting light on the woefully-underreported horrors of environmental degradation, indigenous and female rights violations and the state’s suppression of voices of resistance. Embracing a disorientating amalgam of staged photography, crime scenes, police records and first-person testimonies – all punctuated by horizontally-cut pages and loose documents – Centralia traces the contours of a conflict in which half-truths reign over facts. Though not for the faint-hearted, this open-ended account of an ongoing war affords us space to reflect on what we have seen, and to choose what we believe.

3. Buck Ellison, Living Trust
Loose Joints

A worthy winner in the First PhotoBook category for the 2020 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Awards, Buck Ellison’s Living Trust, published by Loose Joints, requires us to study the visual iconography of privilege as embodied by white, upper-middle class lives – or W.A.S.P. – in the United States. In these carefully constructed and performative photographs, insignia such as wooden cheeseboards, organic vegetables, acupuncture bruises, car stickers, lacrosse gear and even family Christmas card portraits examine how whiteness is exhibited and ultimately sustained through everyday structures, internalised logic and economic prowess. Deftly drawing on the language of advertising and commercial photography, Ellison conjures an uneasy world where the “whiteness project” manifests itself over and over again all the while perpetuating deadly inequality both in material and ideological terms.

4. Antoine d’Agata, VIRUS
Studio Vortex

As the title suggests, this book squares up to our present moment amidst the global health crisis with an unflinching intensity characteristic of the famed Magnum photographer. As soon as Paris entered a lock-down in March, Antoine d’Agata took to the emptied streets with his thermal camera. Here, civilians, medical workers and hospital patients are rendered as spectral, flame-tinged figures that flash across the pages. With temperature the only marker differentiating each pulsating body from the next, d’Agata proffers a haunting yet visceral mood piece laden with an existential dread that is befitting of our times. Beyond the limits of reportage, VIRUS is ultimately borne out of an impulse to get to the heart of things, to make sense of the incomprehensible and to visualise what the naked eye cannot: an invisible enemy, at once everywhere and nowhere. A dystopian masterpiece, these images refuse to be shaken off quickly.

5. Lina Iris Viktor, Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter
Autograph


Although there is no equivalent experience to witnessing the allure and intricacy of Lina Iris Viktor’s paintings up close, her debut monograph more than makes up for it through its fittingly-regal design. Published to accompany her solo show at Autograph in London earlier in 2020, it takes us into the British-Liberian artist’s singular world, embellished with luminescent golds, ultramarine blues and the deepest of blacks. Drawing from a plethora of representational tropes that range from classical mythology to European portraiture and beyond, Viktor’s practice playfully and provocatively employs her solitary body as a vehicle through which the politics of refusal are staged, and the multivalent notions of blackness – blackness as colour, as material, as socio-political awareness – come to the fore. Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter is a spelling-binding survey of an artist who is paving the way for new and unruly re-imaginings of black beauty and brilliance.

6. Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth, Tree and Soil
Hartmann Books

The intrinsic splendour of the natural world takes centre stage in Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth’s first book since their highly-acclaimed Poppy: Trails of Afghan Heroin (2012). Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the Dutch duo set out on a five-year-long project to examine the devastation wrought on the region’s biosphere. Expertly edited by curator Iris Sikking, Tree and Soil combines photographs depicting nature’s reclaiming of the deserted spaces with repurposed material from the archive of German explorer, Philipp Franz von Siebold, which includes a collection of botanical illustrations, animal specimens and woodblock prints amassed during his trips to Dejima, a Dutch trading post, in the early 19th century. The result is an enigmatic yet radical dialogue between two distinct histories – the post-colonial and the post-nuclear, respectively – which speaks of the hubris of humankind and the value of nature, in the process ruminating on the disturbed relationship between the two.

7. Amani Willett, A Parallel Road
Overlapse

Another book of first-rate investment in narrative forms of photography comes from artist Amani Willett. Chronicling the oft-overlooked history of black Americans road-tripping, A Parallel Road deconstructs the time-worn myth of the ‘American road’ as a site in which freedom, self-discovery and, ultimately, whiteness manifests. The book’s direct point of reference is Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936), a guide which provided newly-roving black road-trippers tips on safe spots to eat, sleep and re-fuel at a time when Jim Crow laws subjected them to heightened oppression, hostility and fear of death. Whilst maintaining the original’s scrapbook details – from hand-held dimensions to sewn binding – Willett has adroitly juxtaposed archival material with photography, media reproductions and Internet screenshots from the present day to lay bare the ongoing realities of systemic racism in the United States. A harrowing yet urgent title in a year in which the dangers posed to black people when out-and-about have been undeniable.

8. Diana Markosian, Santa Barbara
Aperture

In yet another dazzling year for Aperture’s publishing arm, with Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures and Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph amongst notable releases, perhaps the standout is Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara. Here, the Armenian-American photographer reimagines her mother’s leap of faith as she abandoned her husband in post-Soviet Russia to start a new life in the United States with her children. Family snapshots, film stills and re-enactments by actors play out alongside a script written by the original screenwriter of the 1980s soap opera Santa Barbara, which, for a generation of regime-weary Russians tuning in through their television sets, embodied the promises of the American dream. For all its experimental edge – rigorously merging fact and fiction – this book retains its deeply intimate take on the themes of migration, memory and personal sacrifice. With the project slated to show at the SFMOMA in early 2021, Markosian’s work continues to enthral audiences.

9. Yukari Chikura, Zaido
Steidl

Also excavating personal histories is Yukari Chikura in this strong contribution to the year’s offerings. Shortly after his sudden passing, Chikura’s father appeared to her from the afterlife, imparting the words: “Go to the village hidden deep in the snow where I lived a long time ago.” Committed to honouring this wish, Chikura embarked on a voyage to the remote, winter-white terrains of north-eastern Japan. The resulting publication documents what she found: Zaido, a good fortune festival dating back to the 8th century. Printed across an exquisite array of papers under the direction of Gerhard Steidl, images imbued with magical realism reveal costumed villagers gathering before shrines and performing sacred dances. Whilst the accompanying ancient map and folkloric parables lend this book an ethnographic feel, there is something more incisive at work too. Intertwining the villagers’ spiritual quests with Chikura’s own journey through the darkness that pervades mourning, Zaido is a tale of collective soul-searching that seamlessly traverses cultures as well as centuries.

10. Raymond Meeks, ciprian honey cathedral
MACK

No annual ‘best of’ book list seems complete without a monograph from skilled book-maker, Raymond Meeks. Characteristically poetic and perceptive, his new release with MACK invites readers into the domestic world shared between he and his wife, Adrianna, during a period in which they were packing up their home. Opening with a flurry of photographs which depict Adrianna asleep, bathing in the soft, early morning light, both the tone of imagery and its rhythms sets forth an experience that is akin to a waking dream. What follows is an intercourse of image and verse that pairs the quiet, quotidian rituals that populate each passing day with topographical observations of a house laid bare: mounted stacks of dishes, cracked walls and overgrown tendrils. Herein lies the melancholic undercurrent which vibrates throughout ciprian honey cathedral, a bittersweet evocation of the things memories cling to, and the things we leave in our wake. ♦

Alex Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words. His writings have appeared in Elephant, Artsy and Photomonitor, and he has worked at Phaidon Press across editorial, marketing and digital departments. 

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth UniversityHe lives and works in London.

John Gossage

Looking Up Ben James – A Fable

Book review by Gerry Badger

This is John Gossage’s ‘English’ book, although some of it was shot in Wales, and the title has Welsh connotations. Ben James was a Welsh miner photographed by Robert Frank when he came to Britain in the 1950s. Those British images prefigured the style of The Americans, and as an aside, I remember looking with Gossage for the location of another famous Frank picture, the London hearse, which was taken not in Belsize Crescent – as is sometimes alleged – but in Kentish Town, where I live. Alas, it had vanished during the rebuilding of a goodly portion of the area in the 1970s. What became of Ben James is also unknown, although in the book’s short text, Martin Parr imagines he and Gossage running into the miner’s descendants and being offered some Frank prints for £25 each.

Gossage made the book when he visited Parr in Bristol in 2008 and the pair made a trip around the country, getting as far as Cumbria, where he made a splendid double portrait of photographer Graham Smith and his wife Joyce. This is a very personal trip, a visual travel diary. There are pictures of Martin, and Martin’s mother, and of his sadly departed dog, Ruby, familiar to the many visitors to his Bristol home. So this is firmly in the diaristic mode, an extremely popular, almost ubiquitous trope in contemporary photography. Some would say it is too popular, often coming into the ‘who gives a fuck’ category of so much social media culture. And it can frequently seem a little arch, a bit too knowing, especially when famous photographers photograph each other. There are odd references, for instance, to Martin’s well-known collecting habit, which might be regarded as an ‘in joke’, but Gossage always knows when not to push it. This is an exceptional photobook, for two reasons.

Firstly, the design and production. It is the finest that Steidl is capable of, with the master printer Gerhard Steidl challenged to produce sensuous black and white printing that equates to that silky gravure that was such a feature of photobooks in the 1950s and 60s. And the book is large, with a number of inserts in overlaid colour monochrome. The size, one might say, is antithetical to the intimate subject matter, but in this case it works.

Second is the sheer quality of the images. Gossage has long said that the first criterion for a great photo book is great photographs. Too many, I believe, ignore this basic principle and imagine that complicated design and cute production results in a great photo book. More often than not it simply results in complicated design and cute production trying to inflate empty photographs. Not that design is ignored here, but it is not privileged at the expense of the photographs. Indeed, Gossage is also a qualified designer, and not adverse to pushing the envelope in both design and production terms. He likes the odd design twist – a small red point on an overlay picks out a flare spot in the picture beneath – but again, he has an innate sense of when to stop.

This is a book of photographs first and foremost, by an endlessly experimental photographer. He is essentially a street photographer, a flâneur with an emphasis upon the urban landscape, although that does not begin to describe the range or depth of his practice.

Gossage has developed into one of the most recognisable photographic voices over the years, and that can mean resorting – quite naturally, all artists do it – to a repertory of stylistic and contextual devices, that go to make up his distinctive voice. I know his work intimately, so I am very aware of his little strategies and visual foibles, but I can also say that, like a good jazz improviser, he is always trying to surprise himself, and come up with a picture that one has never quite seen before.

Here, as Parr says in his text, Gossage never courts the obvious but works around the edges, or around the back, sniffing out pictures like a dog sniffs out smells. In this trip, he was nearly always looking for the oblique angle, entirely appropriate for a society which so frequently presents a facade, or even a series of facades. His Britain is a land of walls and doorways, both of which define boundaries yet lead to places. In Gossage’s hands, the outcome seems ambiguous, although this is an affectionate rather than a critical look at our island.

Gossage, like all great photographers, is a master at making the familiar seem newly minted. A few pages in, we come across some milk bottles on a front doorstep, an ultra-ordinary scene which yields a great picture. A mill and mill chimney are presented out of focus, so it is a mill as you’ve never quite seen it before. We then come to a Gossage – and British – speciality, the garden, in six pages of fecund, exuberant plots. We move on to more steps, garden sheds, doors, gates, and gate posts. There is a startling view of a fox walking down a path, and a glimpse of ‘historical’ Britain, in a framed picture of an ocean liner from when Britannia ruled the waves (and rammed icebergs). And there are stains. Only Gossage, I think, can make interesting pictures from stains on the pavement.

This book is not, primarily, about Britain, or even a travel diary, although of course, it encompasses these objectives. First and foremost, it is about what photographers do. That is, make pictures about touching the world. When Gossage was a teenager, his teacher, Lisette Model, advised him to go and look at the work of an old, half-forgotten French photographer called Atget if he wanted to learn how to put a photograph together. I would say to today’s teenage photographers, if you want to learn how to put a picture together, you couldn’t do much better than study John Gossage.

Looking Up Ben James – A Fable is a sheer pleasure, a beautifully crafted and well put together book that above all, contains photographs of the very highest quality.

All images courtesy of the artist and Steidl. © John Gossage


Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 40 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

Dayanita Singh

Artist and winner of The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobook of the Year Award 2017

New Delhi

Our Interviews series continues with Duncan Wooldridge in conversation with Dayanita Singh, hot off the heels of winning Photobook of the Year with Museum Bhavan at Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards 2017. Published by Steidl, it was described by jury member Mitch Epstein as ‘a book of books, each one exploring an Indian motif, from printing presses to the administrative archive. Her work is a sophisticated merger of East and West sensibilities, and celebrates the democratic possibilities of the offset multiple’. Here, Wooldridge and Singh discuss exploring new forms and discourses around the space between publishing and the museum, photography as a way of cataloguing the world or even collecting experiences, the artist’s ongoing collaboration with the legendary Gerhard Steidl as well as their shared concerns of paper, correspondence and memory.

Duncan Wooldridge: In 2008 you made the book Sent A Letter, and in 2012 you exhibited your File Room. Around that time, your books became objects and your exhibition works became small museums. Both seem concerned with paper, correspondence and memory. Did something lead you towards making objects and collections?

Dayanita Singh: Well, photography is a way of cataloguing the world around us so making collections is what photographers do. I sometimes even call myself a collector. Having said that, I always knew the book was at the heart of my work. The book came first and then the exhibition – the exhibition was a catalogue of the images in the book. I used to wonder if there might be a form that allowed me to present the book as the exhibition and that started to happen with Sent A Letter. These miniature exhibitions were in fact letters I had made by cutting my medium format contact sheets, and pasting them in accordion fold books – like thank you letters after a journey with a friend.

In 2011 an old friend was visiting and asked to see my work. I wanted to show him something I had not shown to anyone else. I realised that paper was somehow a large part of my archive, libraries, archives, paper factories. He sifted through the 200 prints, put 24 aside and said File Room and right there the project was born, which will follow me till I die. But then I wanted the book to be an object as well. To find a form where it could be displayed on the wall along side photo prints and paintings. I made such a structure for File Room and then Museum of Chance had the same structure but I also found a way to make a book with 88 different covers! So now the book could be hung on the wall, and with 88 different covers, it also became an exhibition on the wall, breaking the very sequence of the book. With Museum Bhavan I found a way to make each box unique, so 3000 unique boxes were shipped from Delhi to Göttingen, Germany, and now you can choose which cover you acquire and in the box get 9 exhibitions of my Museums and a book of conversations. The cycle that started with Sent A Letter is now complete.

DW: Museum Bhavan collects multiple bodies of work into a kind of museum of museums, made of 9 book museums and conversation chamber, but it has a personal touch, in both the covers and the sense of scale and detail of each book. The idea that your books become like letters to a friend seems to capture something of the care and diligence that is often within your pictures. I’m especially interested in how this shows up in both File Room, and in parts of Museum Bhavan like Godrej Museum, where the first impression is one of awe at the amount of documentary material and the bureaucracy, but this gives way to a deep sense of appreciation of materiality, the sense of ‘matter’ in front of you, that can be touched, smelt, absorbed. Where did your interest in this come from?

DS: It’s difficult to say where ones interests come from, and I prefer not to probe too much (why question the muse?) but paper has always been a fascination. As a child I would gift wrap my mother’s shoe boxes because I loved the sound and feel of folding/creasing paper. I grew up with files, and once my father died we were inundated with litigation and even more files. I am very at home with files. It’s even my comfort zone you could say. That smell and sound of paper!

DW: Does this comfort zone extend to collecting, do you think? You’ve described your work as an act of collecting – each museum emerging from what you find recurring in your images. I wondered if your ideas of collecting were integral to your conception of photography as something that an artist uses? Your interest has moved beyond making singular pictures, even singular books.

DS: Gerhard (Steidl) was so happy when we made Sent A Letter, precisely because it could be acquired for the same amount of money as a book, but then it could transform into 7 exhibitions at the drop of a hat. And now with Museum Bhavan, you effectively are the curator of 16 exhibitions of mine (if you already have Sent A Letter). I sometime call myself an ‘offset’ artist, sometimes an ‘image collector’. Photography is a way of collecting experiences, no? Is that not the privilege of photography? Maybe we all are collectors of experiences. And then like a writer, one has to see what form one gives to those experiences. That part perhaps comes more easily when one is an artist. This idea of finding the right form for each work, like say Geoff Dyer does for each piece of his writing; as Calvino did too.

DW: In relation to collecting, but also the idea of finding the right forms, one of the most enigmatic, but also telling books of Museum Bhavan is the Ongoing Museum. Here it seems that you are playing with what it means to collect, assemble, remember and construct. Images of events, models, hands setting out displays, plaques, and movie scenes all seem to suggest that things both are, and are not what they seem. More importantly, it seems to suggest that they can be what you want them to be. Is your inclusion of the ‘ongoing’ a way of re-wiring those things which appear to be static, fixed down?

DS: Some of the books have two titles, to differentiate them from an earlier published version: eg File Room morphs into Godrej Museum and Museum of Chance into Ongoing Museum. But some like Little Ladies Museum and Museum of Photography have two titles anyway. It’s a little play on how one’s reading changes with the title.

DW: You’ve worked with Gerhard Steidl for a long time, rather than switching between different publishers. Can you describe your working relationship? It seems integral to the books now.

DS: None of this could have happened without the support of Gerhard Steidl, he is my co-conspirator. I think he enjoys the challenge each book brings. At first he says ‘no’, and then the next day he agrees to each crazy idea of mine. I doubt he makes any money with my books, but he likes how we push the envelope each time, though the 88 different covers did drive the bindery crazy. I then made a suitcase for the sets (of Museum Bhavan), and now have a suitcase museum since I was the only one who has the full sets. It was also a way to make people go to a bookshop or an event, to choose your own cover, because online you would not be able to choose.

DW: In your discussion with Steidl in the Conversation Chambers part of the Museum Bhavan (a small stapled book, with interviews between Dayanita Singh and Gerhard Steidl, and with Aveek Sen), it seems like you come together over an interest in paper? Is that a place where you share a passion?

DS: Yes Gerhard and I share a great love for paper. He even made a perfume called Paper Passion. The interview in the pocket museum was pre Museum Bhavan but ends with my asking him if he would consider such an object. He said ‘yes’.

DW: Behind your shared interests in the materials of bookmaking, your work also has a concern with the work going out into the world, it reaching different homes and being available over being exclusive. Is distributing a book an act that has particular social and political messages for you?

DS: The magic of photography is not just in the image but also in the dissemination it allows. After all, a photograph can exist in many different ways. The art world limits this scope of photography and the book is where photography is at its democratic best, and when one can make a book that is on par with one’s exhibition, or is indeed the exhibition, then could one say that it takes photography beyond even the art world. I always think that there needs to be a place between the publishing house and the gallery that has the dissemination of publishing and the ‘uniqueness’ of the art gallery. Can a book be both? Steidl and I both believe it can and I think we present this very contradiction with Museum Bhavan.

DW: As I understand it, your critique is of the exhibition, and the way that it perpetuates a standard or homogeneous audience. The opportunity of the book is the way it is open to the sites and layers of discovery – in the bookshop, on a friend’s bookshelves, in a library, or even at a flea market. It could be seen by almost anyone. It reinstates Malraux’s idea that art (art history) comes to you. You seem to be wanting to change what the museum is, and who it is for…

DS: Yes, it is a critique of how we exhibit photography, especially since photography has so many forms embedded in it – and its dissemination is part of the medium. Ongoing Museum is to suggest just that – a museum needs to be ongoing, ever changing, waxing and waning.

Image courtesy of Dayanita Singh. © Ulrike Sommer

John Cohen

Cheap Rents ... and de Kooning

Steidl

According to the artist Mary Frank, in Lower Manhattan around 1960 “you couldn’t tell a party from an opening from a happening.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the creative polymath John Cohen was very much in tune with this place and time when music, art and literature all seemed to merge and explode.

A film-maker, musicologist and prominent folk revival musician, Cohen is also an accomplished and at times original photographer. Here, Cohen paints a broad picture of the buzzing downtown art scene centred around ‘the block’ in 10th Street over half a century ago. Many of his grainy, available-light photographs of laughter and camaraderie taken in the bars and the galleries mirror their subjects’ artistic authenticity and consummately capture the atmosphere: Franz Kline’s snigger and Grace Hartigan’s laugh are almost infectious to look at.

Cohen’s often fine documentary photographs are supplemented by more lyrical ones. One image of a middle-aged man smiling down on two children is both warming (his paternalistic care) and disturbing (they pass “unfortunate homeless winos laying out on the sidewalks”). It has so much poetry it could have been taken by Roy DeCarava if it weren’t so unconventional. Another poetic picture – of a shadowy woman floating in a 10th Street window – is at least as lonely as Robert Adams’ famous silhouetted figure in her Colorado Springs tract house, and is just as skillful an evocation of melancholy.

Cohen’s portraits, by contrast, are wonderfully warm, but the one of Mary Frank’s husband Robert is edgy and unsettling. Robert Frank is just as intense in the photographs of him making his now legendary film Pull My Daisy, even if his collaborators Ginsberg, Kerouac and others seem more relaxed. And as Cohen underlines with an inventive Rauschenberg-esque assemblage of prints (of Robert Rauschenberg), Cheap Rents is primarily an artistic record of a place and a time when people were truly alive, very much in the world, living for art, and pushing ideas to their limits – together.

From the increasingly online, isolated and comparatively innovation-free present, this all seems very distant. “There is nothing like it today,” notes Cohen. Unfortunately, he’s right.

– Simon Bowcock

All images courtesy of Steidl. © John Cohen

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.