Essay Ken Schles

You want a text? Here is a text.

You want a text? Here is a text.

You want stories? You want insight into egos and folly? Of drugs and sex and rock 'n roll? Of musicians working in windowless studios where nights and days roll into each other until life itself is experienced as some kind of perpetual twilight? 

These are portraits-that particular human creation that results from the collision between light and science with the aid of a camera and through a printing medium. A particular characteristic of this type of image is that it involves the human body, usually the face.

These artifacts-these images-these projections of faces-were made during a dance between the imaged (in this case, a musician or a "group" of musicians) and me, the photographer. I have selected specific moments from that dance to give you, our kind viewer, what I hope will be a deeper understanding, a richer experience, an insight into someone you may never meet, and whose musical work you may, or may not know.

"How have I selected these photographs?" you might ask. "What kind of insight do they give about musicians and their music?" Or is it that these images say something more about me and my thoughts and wishes than the person I am portraying? Before you jump to any conclusions you should remember that these images were made after (usually) lengthy discussions with the artists themselves and their managers and/or agents and art directors, publicists and labels. These images are meant to project a certain aura. I am not sure I can explain, in the end, exactly what kind of aura these pictures project, but I hope you get the idea.

Are they good photographs? Do we have a few hours where we can sit and have few drinks? And what of my personal commitment to the artist? That's a hard one. I admit almost all of these pictures were made on assignment. And for some of these I was paid handsomely. Others were made more for the pleasure of it-you see, I love music too. HmmŠ let me restate that. They were all made for the pleasure of it-because I am also fascinated by the process of taking pictures-fascinated with being in the world and using a camera to visually communicate a kind of relationship. And portraits can communicate a very complex series of relationships: between subject and the camera; between me and the subject; between the subject and the person viewing the picture. These relationships exist in real time and frozen time and they are intimately human. I also want to add it was a privilege to be a part of the world these people inhabit-if only for that brief moment.

How do these pictures relate to my "real" work, my personal work? To tell you the truth, it would be hard for me to separate them out that way. I guess I would have to say I am a generalist. With everything I am trying to project ideas and impressions. Let's just say I am a deeply felt generalist. Don't worry about whether I am committed or not. I am in there. Up close. I think you can see it in the pictures. But I can't take all the credit. The person getting their picture taken has placed a lot of hope and trust in me as well. And so we dance a particular kind of dance and I take the picture. But as you can see there is a lot of posing too. And sometimes drama-most of these people are performers after all. Hopefully my interest to get what is good and right is what the record company wants. And what the musician wants even when they aren't adept at expressing themselves visually. Otherwise I wouldn't have been asked.

But you know, the truth of it is lately I haven't been asked. Lately, they (the label, the "artist") want more splash and flash. Photoshop and fashion. Illustration. Theater. Fiction. Artifice. In stead what I've tried to do is something honest-even if we have to admit that pictures-portraits especially- are a kind of conspiracy whose truth is not what might be what is readily apparent. I've tried to be an honest connection between them and you-a conduit-showing a real and perhaps even vulnerable person. Is the world now in such a precarious way that the powers that be don't want to show such vulnerability? Is that why my phone lays silent?

It's true-I admit it-the record companies lately haven't been calling. But is it my fault or the fault of the music world? The reality is that the traditional business model for the record companies is over. So maybe that's an answer as to why they don't call. But here is a fact, and it is no secret: the world we've inhabited is over. The gig is up. But then it always has been and continues to be. Up, I mean. Time moves on, life moves on. And then doesn't.

And then, sometimes, the transition between different eras looks and behaves more like tragedy. There is no hiding from it. The world we see in these pictures-in any picture-is over and gone. But what we have left, what lingers and still remains are the facts that unite us and carries us over from generation to generation. That is what I love about photography. You can explain what things are until you are blue in the face and then there is the power of the photograph to reveal something human and something that is real beyond the artifice and the posing. It is an image of the human condition, the human form, the face in the mirror momentarily stripped bare. The I and the thou.

Right now, reportage-based work-my work-as in the kind of work I did for a living-as far as I can tell from the way my phone lays silent-is work that is over, gone from the scene. I can blame it on an economic slow down, but there is never just one factor that explicates these things. Maybe it's also because the world right now is too scary to face directly and we need to temper our gaze with a gloss of the superficial. We are too fragile to face our demons: too fragile to face ourselves. So we give ourselves simulation; give ourselves an image that is about distance and fantasy. I say give the world enough rope and it will hang itself. Or maybe we don't have to, because maybe it already happened. Maybe we have already hung ourselves and we're just waiting for the outcome to hit. Waiting for the corpse to stop breathing. But maybe, just maybe there is a spark of humanity left to resurrect a new world-in some other form. And maybe we give birth for exactly those reasons-so that we will find some joy and humanity and hope that the progeny we create can save us from the folly and horror of what we've created. That former music industry is dead. That former music industry that once fed me is gone. Are you saying that I have no right to complain because I was some kind of mercenary as I made my living shooting musicians? Let me tell you something. The world is a series of illusions delimited by access.

The record companies gave me access. I played with their illusions while making my images. If you think otherwise you are deluded and no amount of my explaining will suffice. I am a generalist. Destined to be forgotten and passed on. You can look at these pictures and think that you see famous rock stars and musicians. I don't. I just see people as tragic and hopeful as you and I. I was the one they once called when they wanted the image to stick. I'm the one they once called when they thought these pictures mattered. Many of the people you recognize here hadn't been photographed before. Not in their capacity as "stars." Not in that way.

What kind of music do I like? What is the soundtrack of my life? Should I mention obscure rock bands working in sex clubs in Saigon during the Vietnam War, or the sound that a hive of bees makes while swarming a flowering tree atop a hill village in Tuscany that predates the Roman Empire? And what of those bands that played privately for me, like the time Slayer, with their huge stadium rig of Marshall stacks when they played a full set just for me as a last rehearsal before packing their gear in those 22 wheelers on their way to a world tour. Or going to see the hollow wreckage of Johnny Winter burned out from alcohol and painkillers practicing (to awesome effect) in his basement with his amp turned to "11" and me there alone picking among his Woodstock and Haight Ashbury memorabilia from between the empty and half-empty gallon containers of off-brand vodka bottles.

Or the innumerable bands that never made it, like the guy who had me set up a photo shoot with him and a dominatrix, because he was too in awe of her to call himself (the record company just wanted to make him happy and had no intention of using those pictures, but I still have them). And in those days, back in the East Village when They Might Be Giants worked as the warm up band for my girlfriend's performance art group in that club in the basement that held about 40 people max.-they'd play there every Saturday night, like clockwork. Those were special times. Or Rod Stewart showing up two hours late and too drunk for the shoot slurring "Let's do it tomorrow-I'm just a little jet lagged," stumbling to his $4500 a night suite in the Peninsula Hotel, or then the next day, making me wait in a cramped van for another two hours while he got drunk on $300 bottles of champagne in some fancy restaurant talking with this guy-a car mechanic from New Jersey-about race cars.

You want a text? Here is a text. You want stories? You want insight into egos and folly? Of drugs and sex and rock 'n roll? Of musicians working in windowless studios where the nights and days roll into each other until life itself is experienced as some kind of perpetual twilight? Or those days of endless travel going from one one-night gig to the next in buses filled with the stink of your own bad-breath and the lingering smell of stale beer and vomit from groupies giving blowjobs? (I made that last one up). (Or did I?). Images. Illusions.

These images are all true and yet they belong to the imaginary for those who didn't experience it firsthand. But in truth, their reality is boring, like most fantasies. Freezing cold thousands of miles away from the people you once knew, who no longer know you; or finding yourself suddenly immersed in an onslaught-a rushing torrent of sweating people-a mob, as it crushes against you so hard you feel you might pass out or get pulled under. And just what is it precisely that they are after? A piece of the action? A piece of their own fantasy? A piece of you? What does that mean? Who are these people who still come to every show and the groupies who get past hotel security-until they don't appear anymore and those nights the venues lay dark and empty and road gets long and hard and lonely. Alone in "the bubble." Nights get cold flying on those airplanes 30,000 feet up. In the van, in the bus between gigs watching the same DVD over and over and over again until the words of the killer on the TV are your own. And eating in fast food restaurants because you are faint with hunger and you don't know where you are because all the places are closed and the world is dark.

Do I have a picture of that? These are all pictures of that. And maybe these pictures are also reminders of the possibilities and power music awakens in us. Hopefully they evoke ideas and echo the music that allows you to forget-if for just that one moment-about what is over, and then further allows you to hold, within your own mind, an image of something perpetually born anew that is present right now. Maybe through music we can believe for just a moment we can save ourselves from the folly and horror of those other things we've created. And maybe, just maybe, we will hear something you can dance to.

© Ken Schles / Noorderlicht 2009