Invisible City: Photographs by Ken Schles

invisible-cityOriginally published in 1988 by Twelvetrees Press, and now reissued by Steidl, these photographs capture the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the end of her life. When I say “end,” I mean that the buildings are vacant, the trees are bare ad stunted, the streets are empty, and the people look empty too. Schles captures them lying around in filthy apartments, hollow eyed, and depressed. One of them shows a woman on the toilet, crammed into a tiny bathroom, her dress hiked up to reveal her flabby legs. I remember the city in the Kotch-Dinkins-Giuliani days; most New Yorkers were averse to being photographed, and the subject here must’ve been pretty hopeless to let herself be compromised like this. Regardless, I was not turned on.

In another photo, the neighborhood comes out to celebrate the fireworks, everyone’s out dancing in the street. Other than that, there’s no sign of happiness in this book. Everyone’s just waiting for the place to die quickly so they can move on. Seen from a window on a hot summer day, weed-grown lots and empty tenements. I know it’s the summer because the tree have leaves and the sky is cloudless. But even the trees look sick. There are three cars on the street, theibuildings-with-garbage-bag-1983r windows intact. Is it because nobody’s there to break them? Do the owners move the cars at night? One photo shows a bunch of tulips on a windowsill overlooking an alley. They say that when a tree des, a thousand flowers bloom.

Today, the Lower East Side has good things. Community gardens are well-maintained, streets are clean, kids can walk safely in the streets, and there are healthy things to do. Young people have moved in, and they proudly decorate their apartments. The neighborhood was once a dead tree, and it finally fell down. Flower bloomed in its wake.

The grainy pics capture every horrible sad detail of the old Lower East Side. Some might call it poor quality, but keep in mind that not all artists are well-financed with the best equipment. The photographer may have been too poor to afford a flashbulb, or maybe he bought some past-date film. I remember when I started taking pictured in that era; I used grainy 400dx black and white film. You couldn’t blow it up, but it was perfect for low light. Or a dark, unlit tenement.

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