I have never truly enjoyed Goldin’s ‘Ballad’ as much as I feel I should, but I have always had a copy on my shelf.
I have it because of the confirmation it provides that turning one’s camera onto your own ‘tribe’, onto what you know and live, can be as interesting as a trans-continental adventure with a plate camera and entourage of assistants. Goldin’s friends and ‘characters’ may be more universally interesting than many but if another photographer had parachuted into these situations, the result I am sure, would not be looked at with the same appreciation ‘Ballad’ is today.
I have a copy of ‘Ballad’ to challenge me, I have bought too many books based on their aesthetics and subject matter that have gone on to rarely be opened. I know what is in them, I understand it, I like it, I know it. ‘Ballad’ is a beautifully honest, yet awkward film to me, the kind that you will keep watching, and re-watch, and discuss, but never truly understand, and never fully enjoy.
I am also frustrated by the book. I am aware that a book may rarely give a complete view of a subject, but ‘Ballad’ seems to be missing so much, the work lives far beyond the pages, in slide shows, and music and talks, in bars and rooms once occupied by Goldin and her tribe. I feel the book only scratches the very surface of a much larger being.
I am glad to hear others views on this book, if only to be reassured that I am not the only one who has a strange respect rather than love relationship with it.
In the late 90s I picked up a first edition of Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency in a well-known secondhand shop on London’s King Road. Surprisingly it was only £6, a bargain as it transpired, piled among other reduced to clear gardening titles.
I had read of it but in those pre-internet days, not seen the work. It seems odd to think that book dealers would overlook such a collectable title now but on a quick glance, it’s easy to understand why. The book has the feeling of a self-published, 5 year long personal photo-diary of a group of 20 somethings having a hedonistic lifestyle that started as fun but ended a little dark and dangerous. Snapshots, direct flash, sex, drugs, drag queens, domestic violence, good times, bad times are all there.
Although most of the pictures are captioned, I found myself flicking through trying to work out who was who, what the relationships between the characters were, how they happened to end up in New York, London, Brighton, Berlin etc. I have the feeling that over the 5 years there were many shots taken but the editing is really well done and it sits together like it all took place over a couple of weeks
There are echoes of predecessors like William Eggleston and Gary Winogrand in the work but to me really it seems like a new direction in photography that led to many others well-known names such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Terry Richardson, Corinne Day and Ryan McGinley.
Anyway, it’s a great book and worth a look if you haven’t seen it.
Thanks to Lloyd Spencer for this reflection on Goldin’s book. If you would like to share your thoughts, see here.
A fascinating, compelling book. “Diary” is correct as it is the rather seedy and dissolute life that provides the real interest. Writing compellingly about such a life requires more skill than taking photos. Finding the words for the chaotic collisions, the violence or traces of violence, deciding how much to quote or report, what perspective to adopt: photography doesn’t really pose any of these challenges.
Nan Goldin emerges as a competent photographer and someone who probably lived her life (or her life ‘then’) as a kind of unfolding photobook . . .
The result is a pretty unique work. But unique (unmatched) also in Goldin’s subsequent career…
Goldin’s ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency‘ is by no means an undiscovered work, and as we will highlight, has been discussed and talked about many times, in many formats before. But this book never fails to invoke response from those who have either seen it 100 times, or those who are viewing it for the first time.
And we would really love to here from as many members of the Photo Book Club community as possible, so feel free to share your views in Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments section below. We are also happy to post any personal reflections on this blog (these do not have to be in praise of the book!) just leave your reflection in the comments or in email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first thing I said upon seeing the ‘Invisible City’ in it’s entirety was simply, “wow”, unfortunately at the time I was across the table from Ken Schles himself who had kindly agreed to lend the Photo Book Club a copy. It was a ‘Frasier-like’ moment when I really wished I had something more intelligent to say.
I also wished that I had a memory of this time and place depicted in such dark tones within Ken’s images, I wanted to layer my own history onto Ken’s page and relive a particular time through different eyes. But I have no memory of Ken’s subject and so Invisible City was new for me, allowing me to search without reference and without the worry of reality or history. It was like reading a book as a kid, each character would come to life and create a movie in my mind. There are books in which the authorial presence is constant and reassuring, in Invisible City I felt I was left alone to wander and explore Alphabet city, a fascinating, daunting, exciting and entirely unfamiliar place to be.
To me, Invisible City is not just a poem to the night (As Jeff Brouws commented) but a poem to the book, a reminder of how powerful the book as a medium can be. Single images are erased from my mind as I follow the darkest black tones from page to page, much like a shadow stretching across the entire spread of images. A photobook is a selection of images, and a good photobook is a fantastically sequenced and edited selection of images. Invisible City is just one, single, poetic image.
I want to thank Matt Johnston and Wayne Ford so very much, once again, for taking on Invisible City. I hope people not already familiar with IC found something here. For me, this month has been a great ride. The Photo Book Club re-connected me to that challenging time—not only to people I once knew but it also reaffirmed bonds with people I’ve known on through into our current challenging times. I want to personally thank those who wrote so eloquently about their memories and the significance Invisible City had for them: Some of you I’ve met in later years and some I still have yet to meet—and look forward to meeting.
I have to say it’s been extraordinarily good timing for me to revisit Invisible City. It gave me insight on current work, as well as old. Because of this Photo Book Club process, I dug out things I barely remembered I even had. It’s help me with talks I am about to give and it was helpful in organizing the Invisible City images to exhibit at the Bursa Photo Festival. And good timing as well as I consider a reprint in the book’s future.
Over the summer I was approached to produce a piece for Paris Photo by Harper’s Books that worked in relation to Invisible City. And because my mind thinks in ‘book’ form, I put together a maquette of images and text I had originally considered for inclusion in Invisible City but that didn’t make it into the original for reasons about tone and emphasis. To this day I still enjoy seeing and reading this other work: they still share essential poetic qualities that infuse the heart of Invisible City; they still speak about that time and my experience of it. And so I made a small companion to Invisible City—Invisible City: Nightwalk, Fragments and Alternates. Because this is a one of a kind, hand-made thing, I videotaped it before sending off to Harper. I am now happy to share this rarity here with the Photo Book Club members to close out the Photo Book Club/Invisible City experience:
This is a hand-made 64 page book prototype (including covers) composed of material I considered for use in the book Invisible City (Twelvetrees Press, 1988). None of these images appear in the final printed version of the book, however. The images here were scanned from original prints used in a book dummy that was a forerunner to Invisible City. The plates used to print Invisible City were also made from this set of original prints.
The book dummy ends with my original notes for a talk I gave at the International Center of Photography in 1990. The full text, including the excerpt by Kathy Acker, from Blood And Guts In High School, can be seen here.
Other text in this prototype:
Night draws from its body one hour after another. Each different, each solemn. Grapes, figs, sweet drops of quiet blackness. Fountains: bodies. Wind plays the piano among the stones of the ruined garden. The lighthouse stretches its neck, turns, goes out, cries out.
Crystals a thought dims, softness, invitations: night, immense and shining leaf plucked from the invisible tree that grows at the center of the world.
Around the comer, Apparitions: the girl who becomes a pile of withered leaves if you touch her; the stranger who pulls off his mask and remains faceless, fixedly staring at you; the ballerina who spins on the point of a scream; the who goes there?, the who are you?, the where am I?; the girl who moves like a murmur of birds; the great tower destroyed by inconclusive thought, open to ,the sky like a poem split in two … No, none of these is the one you wait for, the sleeper who waits for you in the folds of her dream.
Around the corner, Plants end and stones begin. There is nothing, nothing you can give the desert, not a drop of water, not a drop of blood. You move with bandaged eyes through corridors, plazas, alleys where three vile stars conspire. The river speaks softly. To your left, to your right, ahead, behind: whispers and cruel laughter. The monologue traps you at every step with its exclamations, its question marks, its noble sentiments, its dots over the i’s in’ the middle of a kiss, its mill of laments, its repertory of broken mirrors.
Go on: there’s ‘nothing you can say to yourself. – Octavio Paz, from Eagle or Sun?
Remember when I insulted you? When I vomited all over you?
And when you had to see with these eyes that never close how I slept with that vile hag and talked of suicide? Show me your face,
Where are you? Actually, none of this matters to me. I’m tired, that’s all. I’m sleepy. Don’t these endless discussions tire you?
It’s as if we were a couple who, at five in the morning, with swollen eyes, continues on the rumpled sheets a quarrel started twenty years ago. Let’s go to sleep. Say good night. Show a little courtesy.
You are condemned to live with me and you ought to force yourself to make life more bearable. Don’t shrug your shoulders. Be quiet if you want, but don’t go away. I don’t want to be alone: the less I suffer, the more unhappy I am. Maybe happiness is like the foam of the painful tide of life that covers our souls with a red fullness. Now the tide recedes and nothing remains of that which made us suffer so. Nothing but you. We are alone, you are alone. Don’t look at me. Close your eyes so I can close mine. I can’t get used to your eyeless watching. – Octavio Paz, from Eagle or Sun?
Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. – Italo Calvino, from Invisible Cities
“The necessary condition for an image is sight,” Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: “We photograph things in order to drive them from our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.” – Roland Barthes, from Camera Lucida
At this point Kublai Khan interrupted him or imagined
interrupting him, or Marco Polo imagined himself
interrupted, with a question such as: “You advance
always with your head turned back?” or “Is what you see always behind you?” or rather, “Does your journey take place only in the past?” – Italo Calvino, from Invisible Cities
Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind. For space, no less than time, is
artfully reorganized in cities: in boundary lines and
silhouettes, in the fixing of horizontal planes and
vertical peaks, in utilizing or denying the natural site, the city records the attitude of a culture and an epoch to the fundamental facts of its existence. – Lewis Mumford, from The Culture Of Cities
Even when lovers twist their naked bodies, skin against skin, seeking that position that will give one the most pleasure in the other, even when murderers plunge the knife into the black veins of the neck and more clotted blood pours the more they press the blade that slips between the tendons, it is not so much their copulating or murdering that matters as the copulating or murdering of the images, limpid cold in the mirror. – Italo Calvino, from Invisible Cities
I don’t believe people exist whose inner plight resembles mine; still, it is possible to imagine such people—but that the secret raven forever flaps about their heads as it does about mine, even to imagine that is impossible. – Franz Kafka, from Diaries 1914-1923
Ken Schles Invisible City was a lonely, cold toned poem to the urban night, capturing equally the alienation of those unsanctified city spaces while simultaneously calling forth the glee of anonymity and free flight found only on the street. The size of the book was perfect, the design perfect, and its printing perfect: matt, coal-black, sheet-fed gravure. Bleed upon bleed: images interrupting and overflowing onto, and into, one another.
This was a fragmented, elliptical narrative. With tenderness sprouting on one double spread, and bouts of cold-hard fucking amongst the decay on another. Blighted beauty. Naked nightscapes. Unkempt, dimly lit details of fast and forlorn self-pleasure make themselves known. Revelations pour down from our daily stage production, the audience a lone camera. Metonyms and metaphors for all that ail humanity.
This was a grainy, lens wide-open, manly photography: when a fellow had to know how to push film. Had to know the proper darkroom alchemy in which to conjure and coax delicate, thinly sliced images from cooked celluloid.
A bit of William Klein, Meatyard and Brassai. R. Frank roaming internal America instead of its hinterlands. A Tom Waits tune or Bukowskian turn-of-phrase made visual; the threat of the acrid, hot city beckoning, or blowing itself up, or perhaps imploding. Who knows in all that darkness?
Schles’ Invisible City photos hold all tension and dance with it. We catch our breath for the briefest of moments and then seek solace in movement again.
Invisible City is well known to those who know it and unknown to those that don’t! How do you feel about it being so rare, and considered one of the greats, while many who cannot afford it, have not been able to see it.
I wish more people could see it. I feel it has never really been widely known. It went out of print soon after it was published. It was never my intention for it to be so rare. Relatively unknown and yet delighted in, maybe that’s a good definition of it being in a certain kind of club? A good thing people will be able to see it here in this club then. But books of this sort need to be held and flipped through, that I know.
Books take on their own lives, if they are successful, and go on to have their own histories. I have a few stories around the book. Books reflect back on you. And although this book is relatively obscure because of its rarity, it’s given me a few stories to tell. Walker Evens called his book, American Photographs, his “calling card.” For me, Invisible City was a life-line into a career as a working artist. It has gone places I’ve never been to, spoken to people I’ll never know. It’s always been underground and under the radar. Something people ‘in the know’ seem to know about—whatever that means.
It’s a small private book, and it has affected people in a personal way. But as its creator, I can’t objectively gauge its impact. And I don’t think anybody creating a work of art can ever truly understand what impact one’s work has had. It’s hard enough to know one’s own mind, let alone someone else’s. Sure, over the years I’ve gotten some glimpses. Pre-internet, I’d get the odd phone call. Sometimes people would want to visit, or even send me small gifts. One time I got a phone call from Italy, from a fashion house that said that Robert Frank had told them to call me. I found out through them that Invisible City was a favorite book of his and he was throwing some work my way (eventually there was an ill-fated gallery connection from him too. And it was through that that I eventually met him). One call was from Robert Robertson, the DP who was working on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers at the time. Over the years I found it had had a huge effect on many people in the photo and especially the film industry, but at the time it was considered too ‘raw,’ and too ‘hard’ for the main stream.
But the world has changed. I’d hear that some teacher was showing it to their students, or there was a lecture about it. In time, I’d be asked to give lectures about it. But not that many people contacted me early on. During that time I kept lamenting that the only good photographer was a dead one. I was still struggling to make ends meet. John Szarkowski at MoMA told me that the museum would have to support my work because it was important and galleries wouldn’t want to hang my pictures on the wall because they were too ‘difficult.’ Unfortunately, John retired soon after and the support wasn’t all that forthcoming as the photoworld and museumworld morphed into something else.
So the book didn’t have a direct impact on my career, not at first anyway. It took a few years. Over time though, it’s been cumulative, and it hasn’t abated. Not in the least. I’d hear of creative meetings in all sorts of creative industries—after the fact, where the book was referenced, but rarely did anyone bother to call me. In that, the book had a strange trajectory. Immediately upon publication, the New York Times selected it as a notable book of the year, but there were not many copies yet in distribution because of a decision to sell most of the copies abroad. Copies were slow to surface in US bookstores and it was considered out of print within a year. When first published, a local favorite bookstore, St. Mark’s Books, had it on their hip new arrivals table. I was really proud of that, but within a week it was hidden behind the cash register because so many copies were being stolen.
You had to know that it was there and you had to ask for it. To me it was frustrating. How were you to know about a photography book you had never seen? I worked so hard to make it happen, and when it did, immediately it went into hiding. Peter Galassi at the Museum of Modern Art put it on display for the More Than One Photography exhibition, but left it in a vitrine, so nobody could leaf through it or even touch it. Somehow, the book was out there, but it was also hidden. Early reviews came with some caveats. I don’t think the book was that well understood at the time when it first came out. The Times review said I was making obvious connections to Weegee. Others thought I had copied Ed Van der Elsken’s Love On The Left Bank—Susan Kismaric at MoMA showed me that book after she saw mine. I love that book, but I had never seen it before.
Because of its rarity (it sold out really fast) the price went up quickly and it was lost to a more general public. I couldn’t even afford to buy copies on the secondary market. It stayed hidden away in collections. How do I feel about that? It’s funny, you want something to be successful, but you think that it being a success would cause certain things to happen, which isn’t necessarily the case. I guess I was naïve. When Jack Woody published my book, he also put out that same year Joel Peter-Witkin’s first book and Herb Ritt’s first book. Personally, and in the long run, I think my book is as important as theirs, but they got the museum shows and they got the fame. The attention my book got was pre-internet word of mouth. I see now that it is people of a certain age and from a certain milieu who mostly know of the book. There were no photography book geeks to speak of back then. There were lovers of photography books, but it wasn’t such a vocal and distinct appellation to like photography books. And of those that did their voices had little impact in the larger photographic community.
Not that long ago I was in the office of Phil Block, the director of the school at the International Center of Photography, and while he sings the praises of Invisible City (he was an early and ardent advocate, an early champion of photography books as well) he says that younger people just don’t know about it. To test this, I asked students walking into his office if they’d heard of the book. Most all said they never heard of it. With less than two thousand copies in a world of seven billion people, I think that’s quite understandable. But then again, you just don’t know its impact. In 1999, I got an email from the Dutch photographer and curator, Machiel Botman. He and the curator Wim Melis of the Noorderlicht Foundation for Photography wanted to make my work the center of a festival that included a slew of some very impressive photographers (I don’t want to leave any names out, so please look at this link). They said, “We love Invisible City, what have you been doing lately?” That exhibition led to the publication of my second book, The Geometry of Innocence, published by Hatje Cantz, in Germany, 13 years after IC came out.
I hadn’t a clue that there was an audience of people that knew of my work outside the U.S. I felt like one of those old forgotten jazz musicians who had to go to Europe to find their audience. So, in that sense, I wish my work wasn’t so obscure to people. It’s been a long and somewhat hard road. I’m lucky that I can still work and explore new avenues of ideas. By and large, Invisible City was my passport to entry. I’m proud of its successes. From all the responses from people over the years who have sought me out to tell me what impact the book has had on their lives, I would think that more people would like to know about it. But with few copies about and people being so precious about them, I can understand why more people don’t know about it. I wish Invisible City more luck in the coming years. More is hard to say.
The following is a personal reflection from Matt Johnston on his first viewing of Cafe Lehmitz, if you have a reflection you would like to add, then do so in the comments below or email email@example.com
I should have first seen Cafe Lehmitz back at university when my tutor suggest I see Petersen’s view of a single beer house in Hamburg for inspiration. I have to confess i didn’t see it then (sorry Jonathan!) as I was quickly distracted by the bright lights, ball parks and endless roads of American photography.
And so my first viewing of ‘Lehmitz’ was only a month ago. The raw power of the striking, rich-black images grabbed me straight away, but it was the refreshingly honest and simple premise of the story that most appealed. I loved the idea I was seeing someone who first came as a visitor and soon became embraced by the seemingly dysfunctional family he depicted.
I would never had made the images Petersen made here, and I don’t know many photographers who would have. The technical skill can be taught, but the way he went about gaining trust, meeting people and producing this ‘family album’ is something only Petersen knows.
The following is a personal reflection from Wayne Ford on his first viewing of Cafe Lehmitz, if you have a reflection you would like to add, then do so in the comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org
I ﬁrst came across Café Lehmitz in the mid-1980s, browsing the secondhand bookshelves of a local bookstore, there amongst the how to books, and pretty landscapes of the photography section, I came across this book full of raw and gritty black-and-white images that bought to mind the work of Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, an artist I had only just discovered and whose work I had fallen in love with.
At that point I had never heard of Anders Petersen, was he an immensely important artist or a complete unknown, these where questions I would ask later, searching out the answers. But what I did know then, as I held the book in my hands, was that he was important to me famous or not, in his work I found an energy that I had rarely encountered before, and energy that I immediately found a connection with.