Monday, October 13, 2008

A New History of Photography by Ken Schles

"Monkey see, Monkey do, everything I say sticks twice on you."

At the School of Visual Arts, where I was a photo major in the late '80s, I was required to attend a history of photography class taught by William Broecker (1932-2007), the distinguished William Henry Jackson scholar. By the time the class would begin at ten in the morning my sugar high from breakfast would be long gone and Bill's steady soothing voice would lull me into a deep sleep. If I learned anything in his class it was through REM and the two books he assigned, Beaumont Newhall's A History of Photography (MoMA 1982) and Naomi Rosenblum's A World History of Photography (1st edition 1984). The Newhall was still in pristine shape by year's end, while the spine on the Rosenblum was ready to call it quits.

Admittedly, the illustrations in both took precedent over the texts and I would flip those pages lingering over certain images that would stay with me as I ventured out into the world in pursuit of my own work. Those influences are hard to shake - if that's ever completely possible. Instead they served to inspire and challenge, blending and shaping my own interests. After digesting certain descriptions or illusions of human behavior as seen in the best of Winogrand or Levitt, it was inevitable that those would stay on my radar of what was possible to commit onto film. Influence is poisonous and shaping at the same time. Many photographers will go to great lengths to distance themselves (at least in their statements) from being perceived as following too closely in the footsteps of another no matter what the work actually reveals.

Using Beaumont Newhall's Photography: A Short Critical History as a model, Ken Schles has created his own timeline with A New History of Photography - a limited edition book published under Markus Schaden's imprint White Press.

Schles' "new history" includes the likes of August Sander, William Henry Fox Talbot, William Klein, Bruce Davidson, Helen Levitt, Joel Peter Witkin, Man Ray, Robert Capa, Bill Brandt, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Michael Schmidt, Berenice Abbott, Paul Outerbridge, Frederick Sommer, Julia Margaret Cameron and around 90 others. The difference is that all of the images were actually made by Schles himself.

Initially asked by Markus Schaden to create a new work based on a book for a show called Marks of Honor, Schles revisited over thirty years worth of his images and assembled 106 images where he seemed to be directly channeling photographers of the past. Subtitled, The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads, Schles explores the basic nature of the human being as sponge.

Based on what I have written so far, this book might seem to be an easy concept to wrap ones mind around...that is, until the viewer sees that at no point does Schles identify the original image-maker he was channeling. The result of which places the steering wheel of this "new history" into the hands of the viewer.

Some are obvious, Schles' Outerbridge and Klein have direct connections to the original but most others blur image-makers into sub-divisions of influence amongst themselves. This all, of course, relies on the viewer's breadth of knowledge to either expand or contract the history itself.

In the first fifty pages of A New History of Photography, Schles writes at length an exhaustive look at all aspects of influence and provides a mind-bendingly complex (and well footnoted) understanding of his medium and practice. Smart and beautifully written, Schles seems to be channelling the great writers on the medium as well. Unlike the Newhall title, there is little hierarchy here between the words an images -- both hold my attention in equal measure.

The construction of each copy was done by hand and is more of an artist book than anything else. The printing actually utilizes a print-on-demand technology that has no evidence of being so at all. On heavyweight paper, the reproductions are very impressive. Whether black and white or color they read as offset printed images -- I was frankly shocked when I was told that this was print-on-demand.

But the fine printing is only one aspect, the book is finished with binding and casing done with an elegant rounded back binding (using three folio signatures that allow the book to open very flat) and hardcovers with debossed titles. The typography of the 50+ pages of essays is beautifully realized complete with stocked columns of footnotes. The finishing touch is the enclosure of a dustjacket, printed to look like a weathered copy of Newhall. My only criticism would be that the type choice for the individual captions is a bit big and clunky.

A New History of Photography by Ken Schles has been published in an edition limited to 350 signed and numbered copies. The production costs of the hand construction obviously makes this a somewhat expensive title retailing for around 198 euros. I hope they will be able to produce a more affordable version at some point because A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads is sure to rank high on my list of the Best Photobooks of 2008.