JTF (just the facts): A total of 37 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted/unmatted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 1983 and 1986 and printed later (modern not vintage prints). 26 of the prints are sized 16×20 (or reverse) and are available in editions of 15. The other 11 prints are sized roughly 24×37 (or reverse) and are available in editions of 5. Invisible City (second edition) and Night Walk were published by Steidl in 2014 (here and here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Perhaps the simplest way to characterize Ken Schles’ images from the East Village and the Lower East Side in the mid 1980s is to read them as a kind of nostalgically gritty time capsule. Seen from our perch some thirty years later, they seem like a darkly romantic look back at now gentrified New York neighborhoods that were once risky and treacherous, an ephemeral version of history where everyday griminess, poverty, and danger have been given a warm retroactive patina. They feel like quintessential New York pictures, photographs that celebrate our younger, grubbier, funkier selves, the ones who drank, smoked, stumbled around the city, and had sex until the early hours of the morning. But that city-specific “about New York” analysis misses the real reason for their broader durability. Schles documented the bubbling vitality of life while in his 20s, and it’s that bottled energy that keeps us coming back.
This gallery show collapses Schles’ two photobooks from the period (the original/reprinted Invisible City and the more recent Night Walk) into one single visual package, intermingling the images on the walls. While most of Schles’ scene setting pictures (tenement buildings, narrow hallways, seething airshafts, graffiti-covered walls, dark sidewalks, all-night liquor stores) bring a rough edge of grimness to his visual narrative (not Anders Petersen harsh, but certainly raw and unkempt), it’s his photographs of people that crackle with youthful electricity. Using a combination of penetrating flash, street light glow, bare bulb brightness, and stage glare, Schles opens up the shadowy darkness of art gallery dance parties, blues and performance clubs, late night sidewalks, and more casual apartment gatherings, filling them with jittering, restless movement.
While there are fleeting moments of loneliness in Schles’ story (the zoned out wine drinking woman in the spotlight of an otherwise bustling party being the best of these images), for the most part, his world is inhabited by a surprising amount of carefree joy and genuine tenderness given the circumstances. A confident stride into the Palladium is matched by a tongue stuck out raspberry on Halloween, with stag party groping on the floor and on-the-toilet pass outs evidence of emphatic partying without restraint. But amid this hardness, there is softness too – a late night embrace, the quiet reach of hand toward a bare neck, a whisper into a laughing ear, a kiss on the street in the darkness. Details are then used to fill in the narrative gaps – a looming wax encrusted candelabra, a shapely black heel paired with a run in the nylons, a dirty ashtray on the stovetop, and a gathering of beers piled up at a restaurant table – each one a symbolic or descriptive contribution to the overall fluid, improvised mood.
While the images on view are all drawn from the same period, Schles’ two photobooks are remarkably distinct, and the gallery show muddies that conceptual clarity a bit. Invisible City is tightly edited, an expressive, non-linear arrangement of impressions and emotions; Night Walk is much more sprawling, following the loose arc of a single aggregate night, stringing us out from party to party and club to club until we reach the lazy warm embrace of the morning. As a mixed sampler of both (in a musical sense A sides and B sides), the exhibit of modern prints unfortunately sits neither here nor there, the conflicting narrative styles dulling the overall crispness of the impression.
It’s my hope that with time we’ll stop fixating on these as “New York” pictures and instead reconsider them as “guy (or girl) in his (her) 20s” pictures, with all the pent up energy and nocturnal activity that moniker implies. While the parallel to Ed van der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank is certainly valid, many of these photographs have just as compelling connections to the relevant work of Nan Goldin, Wolfgang Tillmans, Ed Templeton, or Dash Snow, and without the overt reminiscing. The 1980s version of Ken Schles was doing just what many before and since have done – interpreting the dazzling youthful buzz that seemed to pump in his veins and discovering the optimism and community hiding underneath the dingy cigarette butts and the dirty dishes.
Collector’s POV: The modern prints in this show are priced based on size, with the 16×20 prints at $3500 each and the 24×37 prints at $8500 each. Schles’ work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.