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Raw Photographs Capture the East Village During the Heroin Epidemic of the 1980s

Boy On East 5th Street (4th of July), 1984.

Boy On East 5th Street (4th of July), 1984

Embrace

Embrace, 1984

When New York City-based photographer Ken Schles lived in the East Village in the 1980s, the neighborhood was, in his words, “like a war zone.” He moved to the area in 1978 at the age of seventeen, and on the other side of the 1980s, he would emerge from the wreckage of the heroin epidemic, the AIDS crisis, and abandoned apartment buildings with his book Invisible City, a time capsule of sorts excavated from a city that no longer exists.

After graduating from Cooper Union, Schles found a home and built his own darkroom on Avenue B, where rent began at $320. The building was in disrepair from the onset, with rats and cockroaches scurrying about the floors, but a few years after he moved in, the landlord abandoned the place, leaving tenants to their own devices. The photographer led a rent strike and worked to improve the living conditions, as drug gangs encroached on the space. A neighbor, the mother of three children, was abused by her alcoholic husband and turned to heroin, often renting out space in her apartment in exchange for a fix.

Schles’ shots, taken from his bedroom window and the surrounding streets, are tinged with the urgency of their situation. They are seen in blurred and grainy fragments, as if the city itself were on the verge of evaporating. Through the fissures in the darkness, however, shine moments of light and a hope for the future. During these years the photographer was surrounded by fellow artists and budding gallery owners, individuals who together held fast to aspirations of building something, of community and friendship. Cameras were less ubiquitous than they are these days, and he flitted in and out of the periphery, shooting his peers unheeded if not unnoticed.

Through the lens of Schles’s memory, New York becomes a study in contradictions, where decay and rebirth occur simultaneously and unpredictably. The images from Invisible City function in part to make sense of the chaos, to rearrange fragmented scenes into a subjective narrative. Having republished the work with Steidl alongside sister monograph Night Walk, Schles has gained perspective and distance, but the intervening years since its first publishing in 1988 have not made him wistful for the past. He doesn’t hold on to sentiment, and the passage of time hasn’t softened the jagged edges of his memory. The anxiety that permeated those years is still felt acutely, and he clearly remembers roaming his halls with a baseball bat at night. Living here, explains the artist, forced him to pass from adolescence into adulthood at an accelerated and frightening pace.

In the wake of the republishing of Invisible City, Schles has revisited its protagonists. Some, he says, have passed away, and others have remained lifelong friends. He has gotten back in touch with several to ask permission to publish the photos. In looking backwards, Schles hopes for a better future, for a New York in which people can live safely and affordably, where rent prices are attainable and buildings hospitable.

Invisible City and Night Walk are on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery until March 14, 2015. The artist will be signing both books on Wednesday, March 4, at the Carlyle Hotel.

Landscape with Garbage Bag

Landscape with Garbage Bag, 1983

Stag Party

Scene At A Stag Party, May 1985

Tulips and Backyard

Tulips and Backyard, 1984

View from 224 Avenue B

View from 224 Avenue B, 1983

4th of July (Independence Day)

4th of July (Independence Day), 1984

Burning Building with Moonrise, East 4th Street

Burning Building with Moonrise, East 4th Street, 1984

Couple Fucking

Couple Fucking, 1985

Craig With Lightbulb

Craig With Lightbulb, 1984

Drowned In Sorrow

Drowned In Sorrow, 1984

La Dolce Vita

La Dolce Vita, 1985

Brooklyn Bridge Boom Box

Brooklyn Bridge Boom Box, 1983

Claudia Lights Cigarette (1985)

Claudia Lights Cigarette, 1985

Crowds Dispersing After Firewoks Display

Crowds Dispersing After Firewoks Display, 1983

Philippe Nibbles Solveig's Earing

Philippe Nibbles Solveig’s Earring, 1984

Ray

Ray, 1985

All images © Ken Schles, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

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