Nan Goldin: Some food for thought #2

As mentioned in a previous post, there is an abundance of online resources for those looking to learn more about both ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ and Nan Goldin herself. A few of the many great videos/slideshows are shown below: (And if you think we have missed a key piece, let us know.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Nan Goldin and The Tiger Lilies, Les Rencontres d’Arles, 11 July 2009 (Slideshow)

Nan Goldin: Contacts Vol2 slideshow/narration

Nan Goldin: I’ll be your mirror (Documentary)

Nan Goldin: Photography and Love (Extract from BBC series ‘Genius of Photography’


Share your thoughts on Nan Goldin’s ‘Ballad of Sexual Dependecy’

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

– Matt Johnston





Invisible City: A Summary

As I have mentioned often in this process we are truly thankful that Ken has taken the time to illuminate us through a book that the majority of readers had never seen in it’s entirety. And one that only gains from Ken’s insightful and open posts. I would like to think that this book has become more accessible in some form to its new audience, it absolutely deserves to be seen.

Below is a list of all posts and reflections that have been shared this past month, which forms the most comprehensive archive we have created yet.

– Matt


Invisible City: Synopsis
Invisible City: The Book and the Images (VIDEO)
Invisible City: The Text
Invisible City: Lecture notes from 1990
Invisible City: Nightwalk, Fragments and Alternates

Other Books by Ken Schles

Ken Schles On: The Photo Book Club Process
Ken Schles On: How Invisible City came to be
Ken Schles on: The rare and unique life of Invisible City (Addendum)
Ken Schles On: Invisible City and Photobook Lists
Ken Schles Appearing In: (Talks, exhibitions and signings)

Personal Reflections

Stan Banos
Jeff Brouws
Jn-Ulrick Desert
Ludwig Haskins
Matt Johnston
Steve Pyke
Nina Seigenfeld Velazquez



Matt Johnston on ‘Invisible City’, a personal reflection

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.

– Matt Johnston





Invisible City: Nightwalk, Fragments and Alternates

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:

Images in this dummy have not appeared previously anywhere (if memory serves me) with the following three exceptions: image on left at the 2:11 mark, image at right at the 4:00 mark and the back cover image all appear in my book, A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures In Our Heads (plates 61, 35 and 31 respectively). The back cover image is also in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


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 On: Invisible City and photobook lists

Ken, perhaps you could talk a little about Invisible City’s relationship with ‘Best Photobook lists’?

The lists… I’m assuming you mean the Parr/Badger book, the Roth book and Hasselblad’s The Open Book — I don’t really want to say too much about them directly since the stories I know about Invisible City being included in them or not are all hearsay. I’m happy Invisible City was seriously considered. I’m gratified that other people would argue publicly and privately disappointment that it wasn’t included:
Here is a piece Bint photobooks blogged when the Parr book first came out, and here is Gerry Badger discussing it. This last thread contains good comments on the speculative prices of photography books.

I ran into Martin Parr the year before last at Arles. He gave me his Playas book and signed it: “to Ken — Invisible no longer.” Obviously I have a few things to say about history and being invisible and maybe my previous book A New History of Photography is a bit of a reaction to all these histories. No one person writes history and it’s problematic to second-guess these things when it is so very close to you.



I guess I can talk around it a bit, talk about the arbitrary turns that history plays upon us all. What seems important at the time and what becomes important in retrospect can be very separate things. I ran into Gail Buckland about a year ago after so many years—she was my history of photography prof in school and did the seminal research that established Fox Talbot as the inventor of photography (she came around over a hundred years later to sort that one out). She had some interesting things to say about how some work and some photographers arbitrarily have missed the boat of history or fell into it because of random decisions by curators or publishers or their own quirks. She told me about some photographers not wanting to have their work reproduced—that’s a buzz kill right there.



Reminds me a bit about photographers being paranoid about the Internet. Things that don’t get ported to new media can easily get lost. Certainly things that don’t get seen or become known do get lost. We are seeing it with film right now—old nitrite films are being lost forever as they decompose. Luckily books tend to kick around for a while and can be rediscovered. Yes, the work has to be good, but if it doesn’t get seen it can’t be remembered and might lay unopened on a shelf. What works for one generation may fall out of fashion and get picked up by the next, but if that next generation isn’t exposed to it in any form it can and will certainly die. What if Lisette Model didn’t show Diane Arbus the work of the little known German photographer August Sander? Torches need to be carried otherwise there will be no lights to guide those seeking things in dark corners.



Lists of the great photography books. Well, Invisible City did make it into one of those books. It is in Auer and Auer’s 802 Photo Books (#676). It lists the most important photography and photography related books of the last 250 years.

– Ken Schles


10% Off select Aperture titles for Meet-up Members

A huge thanks to the folks at Aperture publishing who have kindly offered the Photo Book Club community 10% off select titles, including Nan Goldin’s ‘Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ which we are looking at next month.

This special offer code will be sent to all members of our meet-up community at the beginning of next month. If you are not already part of this, you can add yourself below. And if you do not wish to be a meet-up member but would still like the code, please email Matt here.

[customcontact form=3]

So what books are available to get 10% off?

Nan Goldin, The Ballad of sexual dependency

John Gossage, The Pond

Robert Adams, Summer Nights, Walking

Sally Mann, Immediate Family

Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places

Japanese Photobooks of the 60’s and 70’s

Fred Ritchin – In our own image

William Christenberry, Kodachromes

Rinko Kawauchi, Illuminance

Bruce Davidson, Subway


Other Books by Ken Schles

While we have only been looking at ‘Invisible City’, Ken Schles’ other books are just as highly regarded, helping make Ken one of the most important photobook authors around.

Ken’s latest book ‘Oculus’ is listed below alongside an in-depth video from Ken, looking through the images and text contained within.

Oculus by Ken Schles



Ken Schles On: How ‘Invisible City’ came to be

How did ‘invisible City’ come to be?

It was a force of will. I think books are like that. I made Invisible City because I had to. I saw myself in a particular place at a particular time that wasn’t being looked at, simply wasn’t a part of the consciousness of the world ‘out there’ at the time. It was an intense period and depicts my life in that unforgiving place: NYC’s East Village/Alphabet City in the mid-1980’s. It was a hotbed of sociological and cultural phenomena that eventually became significant to the larger world: the downtown art scene, performance art, punk rock, hip-hop, the no-wave movement, squats, gay-rights, AIDS. It was the last pre-internet underground cultural scene in the United States. And I was coming of age.


In 1982 I graduated from art school. I found myself destitute in the heroin trade center for the planet—but felt lucky enough to find an apartment in what a few years later became an abandoned building—only it wasn’t really abandoned. There were many people living there—whole families, artists, couples, all sorts of people. It was the landlord who walked out on us. I remember that cold winter I was sequencing the images for Invisible City: there was a fire that destroyed the electrical controls for the boiler and we were having a kind of war with junkies who were using an apartment in the building as a shooting gallery. But that was later on.

When I was shooting Invisible City I was keenly aware of the rich history of photography in New York City: Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Weegee, Bernice Abbott, Louis Fauer, Helen Levitt, Roy DeCarava, William Klein, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Joel Meyerowitz’s early street work. And I recognized that legacy all around me. I saw it in the buildings and the sidewalks. These were the same hallways, the same streets, same tenements, sometimes seemingly the same faces in the crowds, the same freaks in the park that I saw in those photographs, but my view of it all was very different. Physically there were incredible similarities, but the physical content had a different significance to me. Having grown up in New York and being the son of someone who grew up in New York, I realized just how different the mythos surrounding New York City played to people of different generations.


You can only begin to know a place at a particular time and from a particular perspective. And you are, for the most part, isolated in that place and locked into that specific time. I recognized my invisible city. I saw the truth in it. The book is a love story about the place I found myself in. And it features many pictures of the person who eventually became my wife, so there is a romance in there as well. But the world and the images are not simple or one-dimensional. The depiction is complex, perhaps a little obscure and frankly, somewhat dark. I moved with some friends from high school to the East Village in 1978, a year after the black out and the riots. I was 17 and starting on my own—I just got into Cooper Union, an art school down in the Village. Those were the ‘Taxi Driver’ days. People were dying on the streets, victims of self-abuse and addiction, victims of violence. And then in the early 80’s friends started getting sick and dying of aids. And then there was this craziness to the abandon we were feeling and trying to make sense of. We were children and we had reign of the decay of the city. It was a world my friends and I embraced as our own.


I titled my book Invisible City after Italo Calvino’s amazing book Invisible Cities. His book is a fictional encounter between Marco Polo and Kubla Khan. Polo tells the Khan of cities within his vast empire—an empire so large that the Khan knows nothing about its composition. The descriptions turn to allegory or fantastic creations of the imagination. The emperor knows nothing of the reality outside the impenetrable walls of his palace and knows not whether to believe Polo’s tales or not. I was Marco Polo to the impenetrable world’s Kubla Khan.


I tried every publisher I could think of to publish the book. But it didn’t fit the mold at the time: it wasn’t a monograph devoted to a specific dead photographer tastefully done with large white borders in a coffee table format. It was dark and small and full bleed. I had no gallery to back it, no museum show to sell it through. No book tour. I was in my 20’s. I didn’t have a history that could be banked on: no gallery outside of the East Village would take me; no publisher would publish me: “Who do you think you are that you want to publish a book?” “Who wants to look at that?” And then Jack Woody picked it up after my anonymous drop. Late one sweltering summer night he called and spoke to me in his slow, deep and commanding voice: “Is this Ken Schles? I’m Jack Woody. I want to publish your book. It’s so depressing.” By then he was my last best hope really. By the time he called, I had nearly given up. And so, Jack Woody (publisher of Twelvetrees Press and later Twin Palms) just put it out there. No promotion, really. I guess he didn’t care if it sold or didn’t, he just wanted to make it happen. Strange that. But then, in those days, two thousand copies wasn’t such a great risk.

– Ken Schles


What’s happening on the Photo Book Club?

For those of you that may be just joining us, I thought it an idea to show you around so you can see what we have been up to lately.

This month, we are looking at Ken Schles’ ‘Invisible City’, with Ken himself contributing to the discussion, you can find all posts for Invisible City here. And you can see the other books on our past and future reading list here. If you don’t have a copy of the book, we have two videos, showing the book, and the images, embedded below.

We also had the first official ‘Meet-up’ this month, you can read about it here, and if you are interested in signing up to our meet-up map and notification system, click here. Or if you would like to know the best places to get your photobook-fix in the offline world, then visit our World Map.

If you have any comments, questions, or would like to use our website to share your thoughts on one of our books, leave a comment below, or email Matt Johnston here.