Promised Land: an essay


These images are more than just figurations of the things that have passed before my eyes. Certainly they reveal objects and people and state for the record that the things you see were in a particular place at a particular time. These pictures are reminders of "facts," like the light looked a certain way that day, or wisps of hair fell ina particular manner, or this person or that person happen to be walking to a place wearing these clothes. I can use these images as my proof that certain things were a specific way and life had a distinctive beauty at the time they were taken. Life was as it is portrayed; only-I, or you, or we, or they/he/she-was there to feel the air and sun and the rain in that place. These traces evoke moments that were. But these moments, chosen out of the continuum of time, point to something else as well, something that had an evident weight on my mind. I stood before these people in this place and had a kind of recognition of something unnamable that compelled me to freeze their-and my-circumstance into being. Because of that impulse, the images not only reveal what was there and what I saw, but also how I thought about the arrangement of my life at that time, in that place, through those objects and those people and through my lens. In my determined way I try to capture what I see. What I have discovered in my adventures is that the pictures I take neither lie nor tell the truth. Pictures are ambiguous and indifferent. It is in the reading of the image that some sort of truth lives or dies. I may use an image to point us in particular directions, for sake of discussion, but the taking and editing of pictures is a blunt practice, however seductive and poetic.

Interview (right) between Miriam Nooi (050 Uitmagazine Groningen) and Ken Schles, August 1st 2005 regarding his project An Absence in the Presence of Things in the exhibit Promised Land at the Noorderlicht Gallery in Groningen, The Netherlands, which ran July 30th 2005 through October 9th 2005.

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MN: For someone living in New York, Groningen is not what you would call next door. Yet you participated in an event as small as Noorderlicht. Why have you chosen Groningen (or rather they've chosen you?) to be the subject of your work?

KS: Well, I wouldn't call Noorderlicht small. It has an incredibly dedicated staff that works very hard to bring a distinct vision to the worldwide photographic community-and to the local community it serves. So its presence is, in terms of its reputation, very large and quite respected. It's the fault of Wim Melis and the people of Noorderlicht that I've attempted this project. We only have them to blame. They chose me. This project is part of a series of commissions they have begun to offer photographers from around the world: to come to Groningen and work on a subject, bringing their various perspectives. My work, in very general terms, centers on people in urban spaces. My first book, Invisible City, was my personal view of living in the East Village in New York City. With Invisible City, I explored my unique personal relationship to the place I found myself living in. I guess Wim wondered what I might do if I found myself in Groningen. This project, Promised Land, was the first of their commissions. Since then, a few photographers were asked to photograph Borgen and churches in Groningen Province. That project was just made into a book called Hidden Sites. The project called Island focuses on the island of Schiermonnikoog just off the coast. Noorderlicht calls these "Cooperative Projects."

MN: You were asked to look for those facets of the city of Groningen that form the character of Groningen, but are at the same time so common that even the inhabitants hardly notice them anymore. What did you find and how did you capture them?