Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Sadness of Men


Philip Perkis is one of the most widely respected American photographers, yet his work is little known outside of professional circles. In this fifty-year retrospective, and first published collection, his inimitable vision is brought to the public. With a gift for capturing moments of heartbreaking honesty and unparalleled beauty, he presents a world on the brink of transcendence. Taken in the most humble circumstances—snapped from the driver's seat or taken at home—these images are so much more than the sum of their parts. The electric fury of barking dogs in the streets of Mexico, the white stillness of Israel, and the silence of a sleeping mother, carry within them complexities of gray, of raw emotion and metaphor. These images are the gift of a master observer with an eye tuned to the almost imperceptible miracles of everyday life. They are not one-line gags or jaded images of the poor or suffering, rather they are evocative explorations of the lovely sadness of life and the wild, sweet rhythms of the world. 125 duotone photographs.

Publishers notes, The Sadness of Men, by Philip Perkis, 2008 Quantuck Lane Press.


With a gift for capturing moments of heartbreaking honesty and unparalleled beauty, Perkis presents a world on the brink of transcendence. The photographs, in both the book and the exhibition have been carefully sequenced, to build upon each other like a visual fugue, an expression of the profound. The result is both universal and intensely personal, exalting and deeply humbling. It is impossible to step away from these pictures unmoved.

From the show announcement of Perkis' 50 year retrospective at the Alan Klotz Gallery in New York City.

Now over a decade ago, I studied with Perkis at Pratt Institute for two years. I was a painting student who was interested in seeing how I might explore the abstract and material aspects of seeing in the camera. As an early assignment, he had me sit in a room and look at the light on a wall for several hours as afternoon turned into evening. In order to tolerate this--it is not easy to sit still and see--I built a camera that would record in long exposures the entire experience. And then I sat looking. As the white wall was illuminated in the transitioning afternoon, it became clear that even this plain white wall was many things. It changed, had a life of its own. It told a kind of story with no beginning or end. A single sentence in a long continuum. A door was opened up to me then that has never closed.

In Perkis' own words:

To simply see what something(s) looks like: the light, the space, the relationship (visual) between the distances, the air, the tones, the rhythms, the texture, the contrasts, the shape of movement… the things themselves… not what they might mean later, not socially, not politically, not psychologically, not sexually (a cigar is not even yet a cigar).

Not to name, label, evaluate, like, hate; no memory or desire. Just to see.

This is the hardest thing to do, but that’s all that can be photographed. The camera records the light emitted from the surface of that which is placed within its field of view.

P e r i o d.

To experience the meaning of what is. To stay with it for even a few seconds is no small task. The sound of voice without language, a musical line, a ceramic vessel, a non-objective painting. The presence of it, the weight of it, the miracle of its existence, of my existence. The mystery of the fact itself.

Maybe it’s the second law of infinity where you keep going halfway there forever. Cutting in half to eternity, and ‘grace’ is needed to jump the gap. I keep taking pictures hoping something will help me across.


- - Philip Perkis
Teaching Photography – Notes Assembled
OB Press-2001
(Thanks to Suzanne Revy for reminding of this quote.)
In a world where millions of pictures compete to perform in service to politics, power exchanges, ideologies, "news", class distinctions and many other functions, it is a gift to be in the presence of work that resists these masters and starts with light on a surface, reflected into the camera. And, from that phenomenological starting point, begins to explore the infinite complexities of beauty and sadness.


3 comments:

suttonhoo said...

"Just to see."

love that.

Suzanne Revy said...

You've written about Phil Perkis far more eloquently than I, and I had forgotten about that assignment... watching the light on a wall...

He clearly had a profound affect on many students...

Aric Mayer said...

Thanks, Suzanne. It was a pleasure to find your blog. It would be hard to impossible to measure the effect Philip Perkis has had on so many people. I'd love to know though. I think it is one of the great untold stories in the photography world.