Review of A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures In Our Heads by Ken Schles


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A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures In Our Heads by Ken Schles is a rare gem of a book, which already seems to be gaining something of a cult status in photography circles. With two outstanding monographs already to his name, Invisible City (1998) [sic] and The Geometry of Innocence (2001) [, A New History] is destined to become a contemporary classic. Launched last summer at Photoinka in Cologne, Germany as a limited edition of only 350 copies, this new title is hand bound in a blind stamped half-linen cover and is printed combining cutting edge digital offset technology and oil based inks. In terms of its content, the appropriated T.S. Eliot quote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different" gives a good indicator of what the book is about: the simple truth that, consciously or unconsciously, a photographer's work always reflects his or her influences. With this as his starting point and a career as a professional photographer that spans 30 years from which to aptly illustrate his argument, Schles offers the reader an honest and open appraisal of the ways in which his own work has replicated iconic imagery of photography's canon.

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Acknowledging a long line of antecedents with whom he has shared a certain version or particular perspective including but not limited to William Fox Talbot, Alfred Stieglitz, August Sander, Bill Brandt, Man Ray, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, William Egleston [sic], Martin Parr, Stephen Shore and Helen Levitt, the photographer attempts to filter his personal influences and vividly retell the history of photography. The things we create, according to Schles, are conceptually speaking not that unique, since our ideas have quickly become homogenized through history. He writes: "As we absorb and project our influences, we project whole histories, personal and otherwise, whether we understand them or not. It is not that the world is a mirror to us individually; it is that we mirror concepts about the world back into the world."

Seldom have we seen such an innovative and experimental book; the essays Schles has penned are smart and make for required reading but it is the images that take precedent. The design aspects too, namely the heavyweight paper, rounded back binding and dust-jacket (printed to look aged and well worn) mean this book is a beautiful art object in its own right.