After talking to photographer Ken Schles last week about his exhibition opening at the Howard Greenberg Gallery I headed to the Midtown East last Thursday to check it out. Ken captured the East Village during the 1980s heroin haze and I wanted to see the glittering carnage up close. What I found was something else entirely.
Emerging from the subway into the blinkered lights of 5th Avenue, I suddenly found myself in a strange and foreign land – a world where the stores are look-but-don’t-touch and the women wear dead animals. A Fabergé elevator took me up to the 14th floor of the Fuller building on 57th and Madison. I entered the gilded halls of the Howard Greenberg Gallery – an ironic twist in the fate of an artist who had made his fortune photographing urban decay.
Ken Schles, the Ken Schles, was standing in the center of a room full of photographers and rich folk signing copies of his classic monographs. Forty black-and-white images from his first book Invisible City (1988) and the more recent Night Walk lined the walls. Men in full-length overcoats and women in merino shawls milled about, casually sipping red wine from clear plastic cups as they appraised the photographs.
“Oh dear,” drawled a woman in a celeste faux fur stole as she peered into the wild, staring eyes of an East Village junkie.
“They must have been on something!” noted a man in corduroy slacks, taking his glasses off to better observe a picture of a woman passed out on the toilet, her black panties bunched around her thighs.
But not everybody was a Midtown tourist. A few of the creepier men in the room must have noticed my discomfort. As I stood in a corner trying to look opulent I noticed two men leering at me. A gap in the crowd opened and the one with the eye patch and rumpled jeans jacket shuffled over. He casually propped himself against a nearby doorway.
“Whatcha doin’ later?” he breathed.
Maybe I haven’t learned something essential in life. Maybe I was a bit too grateful for the attention in a room full of strangers. I turned around and gave this horrible man a big smile. He had several large hairs coming out of the center of his nose and his one eye was rimmed with dirt.
“You’re the first person I’ve ever asked,” he said, leaning closer. “What color are you wearing… you know, underneath?”
Oh my god. I practically shot to the other end of the room. The look of bewildered young female was clearly not working for me. I stood next to a photograph of a woman about to pass out on a table and recalibrated. I wondered what she would’ve thought if she’d known that thirty years later she’d be sitting in a gallery on Madison Avenue providing entertainment and inspiration to thousands.
I pulled myself together and began to snap photos. People in woolen berets noticed my newfound confidence and admired from afar. I said, “Hello, congratulations,” to Ken Schles, talked to a number of artists about the finer points of digital photography, then retreated to the bar to wash down my success with a glass of Perrier.
“Getting any good ones?” said a large sweaty man in the corner.
“Yes,” I said. And walked away.