Selected Review: Invisible City by Guy Trebay


Voice Literary Supplement 4/89 by Guy Trebay

Invisible City By Ken Schles
Twelvetrees Press, $30

The real image of New York is rarely clear to anyone living in it, except as a tenacious sensation. It holds to you the way windblown trash does; it wraps around your leg. This image (this place) is not Fifth Avenue flags popping in the breeze, not the relentless developer's Boomtown, not Gracie Mansion, or City Hall, not the consumer meccas, Bloomingdale's or Agnes b., not anywhere that power people lunch (it has no idea a person called lump exists). New York is a place that rarely appears in books. Its unembellished geography takes in alley window views, and crazy strangers, and days when the air is so heavy it obscures the shape of things.

New York is squalid, but you can develop sentimental feelings about that. Although the city may sometimes seem filigreed with rot, it is beautiful. You read the signs-the large and enterprising rats, the child sitting in a dumpster talking on a toy phone, the drug-addicted beggar on the IRT who abruptly puts her face in yours and demands, "Some money, anything, EVEN A PENNY, NOW!"-and you ignore them. What choice is there? Where else will you go?

The authentic city (and not the public relations phantasm) is a place where chance encounters are the most vivid social interactions many of us ever have. It is the place people are always quitting and crawling back to, a "glittering shambles of enthrallments and futilities," to use Amy Clampitt's phrase. Ken Schles' Invisible City is a picture book that comprehends both the shambles and the thrall. Printed by a California house usually identified with arty, semierotic tripe, the book is compact, with a doomy photo of a tenement fire on the cover. The photograph is blurred, shot at slow speed so that the smoke spreads through the sky as if the building were giving up its last breath.

There are two kinds of pictures-intimate portraits of the photographer's friends, and landscapes. The portraits depict a moody angst (and self-regard) that characterizes not so much a period or a place as a segment of the transplanted suburban middle class. There are too many pictures of women in states of ambiguous sexual distress. And too much voyeurism altogether. (For pictures of this sort, it would be hard to better Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, whose subjects, also the photographer's friends, have real troubles with drugs and with one another, show their genitals to the camera, drink Ballantine Ale from the bottle, but nevertheless convey something desperate and vital. Even bruised, they know what they're doing: fucking and trying to have fun.)

Perhaps any person using primitive photographic means could have taken the landscapes in this book (isn't that the overarching conceit of the blurry Diana school?). But I doubt it. There are nearly two dozen of these views, printed with ink so dense it has gravity. And the pictures hold you. There is a night fire; an aerial view of a liquor store as rich in its rendition of neon as a Jane Dickson drawing; an abandoned apartment house rising from a snow-dusted lot; a baby carriage in a mazy tenement hall; and a strangely painful image of a hand reaching into a dark sky lit by fireworks.

In the solemn notes that accompany the photographs Schles quotes Orwell, Borges, Kafka, and-sigh-Baudrillard, then shrewdly gives the floor to Lewis Mumford. "In the city, time becomes visible: buildings and monuments and public ways, more open than the written record, more subject to the gaze of many men than the scattered artifacts of the countryside, leave an imprint upon the minds even of the ignorant or the indifferent." Schles has an instinct for the vitality of ruins; he understands their texture and their role in dreams. Looked at one way, he has photographed the Other Half in a traditional and somewhat sentimental fashion (a child silhouetted in the nighttime street). But he has also given us a record of the city (a couple copulating in the trash behind a vacant building) recognizable not as a movie set or an advertising backdrop, but as a place where humans spend their hopeful, messy lives. -Guy Trebay