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photo-eye Book Reviews: Oculus

Oculus, Photographs by Ken Schles.
Published by Noorderlicht, 2011.
Reviewed by Adam Bell
Ken Schles Oculus
Photographs by Ken Schles
Noorderlicht, 2011. Hardbound. 96 pp., 35 color illustrations, 12x8-3/4".

Blurring the boundaries between a philosophical essay and photobook, Ken Schles' new book Oculus is a beautiful meditation on the role of images, memory and perception in our lives. In many ways, Schles' work builds upon the questions and concerns of his last two books. If The Geometry of Innocence can be seen as a deconstruction of photojournalism and documentary practice, and A New History of Photography a meditation on influence and our relationship to history and images, Oculus pushes these questions to a deeper level and explores how we use images to understand and construct meaning from the world around us.

Divided into four chapters, Oculus guides us through a highly subjective, but deeply resonant collection of images. The first segment is a series of beautiful nighttime images of waves crashing on a beach. Shot from above and dissolving into darkness, the waves become abstract lines and shimmers of light that hover on the verge of visibility. At first the shore is illuminated, but by the end of the sequence the white crest of a single wave is all that remains – streaked across the frame like a smear of paint.

Oculus, by Ken Schles. Published by Noorderlicht, 2011.
The second chapter contains a series of portraits of sleeping children and begins with the evocative first lines of Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." The quotation not only opens this chapter, but also offers a metaphoric structure to the book. Shrouded in darkness, the portraits might seem maudlin at first glance, but read in the context of the book and its larger themes, they pack an emotional punch. As Schles argues in the text, we all exist "astride two eternities of darkness." Like sleeping children, we live in a state of "sleeping awareness" where "seeing is not knowing. Recognition is not knowledge." Images, however problematic, temporal, contingent, personal and fleeting, allow us to give shape and meaning to our world, memory and lives, and cast light into the darkness that otherwise surrounds us.

Oculus, by Ken Schles. Published by Noorderlicht, 2011.
Oculus, by Ken Schles. Published by Noorderlicht, 2011.
In the third and final chapter with photographs, the images and shapes of the world begin to feel unmoored. Simple forms like the moon, trees and the stars, appear as long lost or forgotten friends – their meaning slipping away and returning to the ether. Both the dark waves of the first chapter and the dissolving forms of the final chapter bookend the sleeping children and force us to confront Nabakov's impending abyss. The fact that Schles' parents were diagnosed with Alzheimer's and found their world slowly slipping away, as well as the fact that Schles' wife was ill at the time he made the work, gives the book emotional weight. Although personal developments gave rise to the work, it nevertheless transcends the personal and resonates deeply.

Oculus, by Ken Schles. Published by Noorderlicht, 2011.
The book begins and ends with text, but is also filled with quotes and epigrams. Oculus is the rare book where not only are the images inseparable from the writing, but where the writing is so good. Like his previous book, A New History of Photography, a thoughtful and well-written essay, complete with endnotes and a postscript, anchors the work in Oculus. The design and printing of the book are also excellent. Given the importance of the text, it is nice to see the balance between image and text handled so well.

Oculus is an unusual and uniquely important book, and defies easy categorization. Equal parts philosophical treatise and artist book, Oculus asks profound questions about how we find meaning in the world and how images give shape to memory and our lives? Viewers willing to spend time with this powerful work will be greatly rewarded.—ADAM BELL

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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are and