Saturday, June 16, 2018

Hanging with Ken, Revisiting the Invisible City, Wandering the East Village, and Deep into Brooklyn

Landscape-garbage-bag-8th-between-b-and-c and other photographs by Ken Schles.
Some days the city opens up in wonderful striking ways.  Between the ups and downs of summer, I had scheduled a PhD defense at 1 PM at 119 Street and Third Ave.  It was raining when I rode out into the city for the ride, crossing over the Manhattan Bridge, through Chinatown, past the Bowery and up to 3rd Ave in less than an hour.   Wow. I couldn’t believe I had 15 minutes to spare. I almost never find myself uptown anymore.  But for years I was up here, taking the train from Brooklyn every day.  Finishing the defense,  I had all afternoon to myself and started thinking.

How do I keep challenging myself?

What’s the next step I thought riding back downtown.

It was a dozen years ago that I was in the same room.

Now I’m conducting the sessions.

What happens to us in the city?

Do we become invisible?

Does this city consume and envelop us?

These are some of the thoughts I have looking at the work of Ken Schles. There is a chapter in my novel, Illuminations on Market Street, in which I dream of sleeping in a hotel lost within my life, with the minotaur chasing me through the dark labyrinth.  His black and white photographs from Invisible City seem to conjure up that feeling.
We were going to talk about his photographs and explore the city, after becoming friends in DC during the waves of actions defending the ACA.
And in Albany, he drove me home after one of the waves of civil disobedience over  environmental policy this spring.  We chatted all the way.
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… The work he made at the time became material for two books, Invisible City(Twelvetrees Press, 1988), which was named a New York Times notable book of the year upon publication and, when reissued in 2014, was named a TIME Magazine photobook of the year. Invisible City has appeared in four histories of the photobook, including Parr/Badger's seminal The Photobook: A History (Phaidon, 2014) and the recently published New York in Photobooks (Editorial RM and Centro José Guerrero 2017). A second book, Night Walk (Steidl, 2014) was also named book of the year by TIME Magazine. Together the exhibited work was nominated for the 2016 Deutsche Börse Prize.

Ken agreed to meet me to talk about photography and the city on Wednesday.
While we’re both Brooklynites, we both have bikes and can travel.
So we met at the Slocum Memorial Fountain, a memorial for a boat that caught fire and sank in the East River on June 15, 1904.   Some 1021 people died.

Right behind the bathrooms at the park, the space reminds of all those days doing community service in the park, I told Ken, who toured me through the spots that inspired Invisible City.   Past the Christodora and a bodega that had been a gallery where he showed his work, Ken chatted with neighbors, pointing to spaces he photographed in the book.  Past Basquiat’s old apartment and a garden he helped form, we chatted about the changing city, art and the East Village scene. We stuck our head in the old Life Café.  I only lived here for two years, but it the place I am most comfortable in New York, I confessed. This is my old apartment, he counseled standing next to Mona’s Bar at 224 Ave B.  I have not been here for twenty years, but my name is still on the buzzer. On we walked, past Rays Candy Store, across from the Park, where I bought some beignets for the kids.  Ray is buying a new ice cream machine.  But it costs $14,000.  The city will break your heart.  But Ray is here.  Ken and I rode back to Brooklyn, talking about the challenging of photographing a city in constant flux.

Maybe this is how you document change, noted Ken, sending me a text message for an action the next day.

Caroline and I cooked later that, making our way to House of Yes, for dancing into the summer night at the Summer Seduction Party, laughing and shaking at the only at House of Yes vibe taking place there, live dancers and performers, a random saxophone, lots of gyrating bodies.
Some days, New York still has it. Wednesday it felt like one of those days.

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