Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Fifteen Questions for Philip Perkis

Philip Perkis, Photo by Cyrilla Mozenter
Philip Perkis is a photographer and teacher based in Stony Point, NY.

1. What would you be doing if you weren't a photographer?

I've always been interested in woodworking and architecture. I'm also obsessively interested in solving physical problems. I've renovated several houses and I still make things for our home. So I would probably be doing something with furniture or small-scale building projects. I've also built many darkrooms.

2. What's the first photograph you remember seeing that made a strong impression on you?

Your question jogged my memory. It was Werner Bischof's 'Monks in the Snow-- Tokyo'—and after looking at it again the other day, I can see why I was so attracted to it. I don't think it's a great picture.

In The Court of the Meiji Temple, Tokyo, Japan, 1952, Werner Bischof

3. How would you describe your childhood?

I was lonely and frightened.

4. What is the role of chance in your life? And in your photographs?

I feel strongly that our lives are governed to a great extent by chance and fortune. How I came to live on this square of the world's chessboard—I take no credit. I am the son of an illegal immigrant who came here penniless and without English. I am learning disabled, yet because of the conditions of the world—and particularly of the United States in the second half of the 20th century, I became a successful artist, Professor Emeritus from a prestigious art school, a Guggenheim Fellow, and my work is in the collection of many of the major museums. I live in a big house that's almost all studios with my wife Cyrilla Mozenter, who is a serious and successful artist. We have a creative life together.

I am certain that none of this would have happened had I been born at any other time or in any other place. In my photography I try to seek with all three of my centers functioning: physical, emotional, mental. And when something appears that corresponds to what I'm hunting for—and I hopefully never know exactly what I'm hunting for—I take a picture. (This frequently happens very quickly.) "A collaboration with circumstance." I'm not sure about the relationship between luck, chance, randomness, intuition, unconscious, physical attraction. I can't separate all those words, and maybe there's no need to.

I think Asian cultures understand the concept of chance better than we do. It seems that we in the West need to take credit for everything good that happens to us and blame others for everything bad.

Las Juntas, Jalisco, Mexico, 1987, Philip Perkis

5. Do you think the universe has any intelligent design or higher being? And how does your understanding of that issue affect your photographs?

I think it would help to take the word 'design' out. It sounds too much like somebody did it. It's clear to me, both from experience and from learning, that the 'world' is a lawful place. It's illogical that it could be random. I think we all get glimpses of this at times in our lives. Some people pursue that understanding more than others. It has nothing to do with an old man holding a clipboard or an iPad keeping score. It's not about human morality. It seems clear to me after all these years that real art, in whatever medium and in whatever time in history, is really in pursuit of that understanding. I think that to pursue these questions too directly in my photography would be a mistake. But the aim is to be as open as possible while at the same time pursuing the craft with vigor. That some of the work I do might approach these questions. Why am I here? Is there a purpose?

6. What's your relationship with the digital world?

Marginal. Back to the luck question, my wife Cyrilla, through persistence, has become competent with the computer, and I rely on her to do things in that area. (I do the cooking.) Also, I have a friend, Vincent Manzi, a fellow photographer, who is as good at scanning my negatives as anybody. And he does the scans and Photoshop for my books. I have no problem with digital photography, and I know some people who make beautiful transcendent work using it. I just feel that I have not yet played out my hand with black and white film and small silver prints. I still have a lot more to do.

New York City, 1966, Philip Perkis

7. Do photographs require emotion to be successful?

That's a large question. The answer is yes. Art without an emotional quality is meaningless. But we have to state a couple of definitions. Emotion and feeling are different things. Really profound art has little to do with "saying what you feel" or "expressing yourself" although those issues are always involved to some degree as well as psychological and cultural issues. Feelings are always expressed through the body: happy-sad, hot-cold, full-empty, horny-sated. Too much art remains about those issues. Emotion is something else entirely. Emotion is about seeking something higher. Something we might call the TRUTH. It's a sense you might get looking at a Vermeer painting or an Agnes Martin painting or a Korean Moon Jar or a Japanese raked dry garden or Chartres Cathedral. So back to your question, the answer is yes, it is necessary to have an emotional quality in order to have real art.

8. Do you ever shoot color?

Yes. For money. About half of my income over the last 50 years has come from doing a variety of commercial photography, much of it in color. When I started photography in 1957, color was not practical to do. When it became practical to do in the 1960s-70s, I was already so immersed in my own work in black and white. (The never-to- be-finished puzzle.)

9. What is your film and print archiving system?

Marginal. I'm getting a little better now that I'm slowing down. The disadvantage is that I lose things and forget things, (I know that some of my important photographs have disappeared.) The advantage—which I'm much more interested in—is that I find things and discover things. Just the right amount of mess.

from Warwick Mountain Series, 1978, Philip Perkis

10. What music do you most enjoy? What type of books do you read?

Bebop and Bach. I read mostly books about spiritual issues and always the writings of G.I. Gurdjieff. A little bit of politics and some novels—lately W.G. Sebald, Anne Carson and Lydia Davis. Back to the music: when I was very young, maybe 11 or 12, there was a person on the radio in Boston named 'Symphony Sid' and he played jazz. It was my first exposure to 'fine art.' Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Lester Young-- I think it was my first glimpse of the idea that there's more to life than "stuff and school". I later became a huge admirer of Thelonius Monk's music and had the good fortune to have met him several times. Monk is a model for the idea of intentionality in art. You have to mean it if you're going to really "do it". He was also wildly innovative and totally disciplined. He was not an entertainer. One more note about music: I see no difference between Charlie Parker and J.S. Bach except for time and culture. I think they're both after the same thing. Another big influence on me as an artist is Charles Olson, the poet and essayist. The kind of metaphor that photography creates is frequently more akin to poetry and music than to painting and drawing. I am a museum hound. I go to the Metropolitan Museum regularly and visit works of art that have become my friends over the years. I am fed by that. Agnes Martin at DiaBeacon is a visit my wife and I make approximately once a month. And I never fail to have an experience of spiritual nourishment when I spend time in front of her paintings. I did paint and draw in art school for several years. I consider the arts different ways of getting to the same place, something about what might be true.

11. Do you have specific visual triggers which get your photo juices going? When you're out shooting, do you respond automatically to certain subjects? If so, do you regard that as a good thing?

I think the most powerful visual trigger would be in the name of what I do, which is to "draw with light"—photo-graphic. I'd like to take the word 'automatically' out because I feel that in trying to use more of myself, intuitive, emotional, physical response, I'm more able to get to something essential in my work. I think in my more successful photographs, it's not so much the subject as the quality of the abstraction and the tension between the two.

In photography and in writing, you need a subject (story). But it's not always the most important thing either in the writing or in the photograph. In painting or music you don't need a subject. And, in fact, in music, you're frequently better off without one. The idea when I'm out photographing is to have the least in mind possible because if I have too much in mind, I'm looking for photographs that I've already seen —either my own or other people's.

from In A Box Upon The Sea, 2016, Philip Perkis

12. Who is the primary audience for your photographs? Who do you have in mind when you make them?

I don't consider an audience when I'm working. I try to make my work as "close to the bone" as I can. I'm sometimes very surprised at who appreciates my work and who relates to it. It's frequently people who are not involved with photography at all. One of the things I'm attempting to do in my practice is to try to take a position psychologically and spiritually in allowing something to come through me (following my muse). It is what I'm trying to do, sometimes with a degree of success.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that I don't crave attention and want to be known and respected as an artist. I think whoever denies that is a liar. But making the work and putting the work out into the world, I try to keep as two quite separate activities.

13. For which photographers has your appreciation shifted (in either direction, toward fondness or away from it) the most over time?

Coming into photography in the late 1950s, I was clearly very influenced and in awe of Robert Frank—both his photographs and early films. Over the years, my relationship with his work has diminished somewhat because I feel, especially in his later work, that sentimentality has taken the lead. He's 91 years old and I still respect him and feel a debt toward him. (He also helped me get the Guggenheim.) In the late 1970s, I met Helen Levitt and I liked her very much for her matter of fact quality. She's one of the most direct people I ever knew. I started printing for her in the 80s and continued until close to the end of her life. I've never met anyone who was more precise about their work and about the way they lived. I think Helen is one of the great artists of the 20th century—and under-appreciated. So many people think of her as a photographer of children, and she didn't even like children. Several years ago Lawrence Miller Gallery mounted a show alternating Helen Levitt pictures with Cartier-Bresson's. There was no comparison in depth and complexity of vision, although Cartier-Bresson was a great photographer and is certainly in the canon.

Possibly by coincidence, both Robert and Helen are 'street photographers'—and I am not, although I take a lot of pictures 'on the street.' Stieglitz is still the best, and always has been.

Guanajato, Mexico, from The Sadness of Men, 2008, Philip Perkis

14. How has the loss of your vision in one eye altered your photography?

The eye I lost was my left eye, which was my dominant. I was devastated. And I felt it was over. It took several months before I could physically move the camera to my other eye. I slowly started to photograph again. It changed my life and it changed my work. It drove me to a more inner place in myself. My vision is now much closer to the way a camera works. A camera has one eye. But it's changed the way my brain works. The right brain controls the left eye. My spelling has improved, not that it's any good. My pictures have become, in some ways, less visually complicated, more emotional and more atmospheric. It's been eight years so I don't see it anymore as a problem. I've also aged so I'm not sure which is the monocular vision and which is getting to be 80, but I still think I'm doing strong work and I hope to keep going for awhile more.

15. Why was your recent book In a Box Upon the Sea published in S. Korea with Korean translations?

In the late 1980s and early 90s many Korean photographers came to Pratt graduate program and, for some reason, we could really relate to each other on many levels. I felt a kinship with many of them—and still do. One of those photographers was a woman named Taehee Park. She is an amazing photographer. We became friends, and when I was writing the Teaching Photography, Notes Assembled book, she asked my permission to translate it into Korean. I was, of course, honored. (I know absolutely no Korean language.) She took the translation to Korea and got it published by the publisher that did most of the photography books in Korea. It became a huge success and I have been invited to Korea four different times to give lectures and have shows. Taehee Park started her own publishing company, Anmoc, and took the rights back from the publisher and re-published the Teaching Photography book with the addition of several of my photographs. It continues to sell well in Korea and is still in print in the United States through RIT Graphic Arts Press. Taehee has become quite well known as a translator and publisher. 

Sample spread from Teaching Photography, Notes Assembled, 2005, Philip Perkis
She has also published a small limited edition book called A Single Photography: 20 Days, 20 Comments, which was initiated and designed by Owen Butler (a photographer and dear friend from Rochester). In that book I looked at and wrote about one of my photographs every day for twenty days, and sent the writing to Owen every day so I couldn't edit.

Taehee then published my newest book In a Box Upon the Sea with Korean and English text. She is going to publish my next book, which will be re-examined never-before-printed pictures from Mexico from the early 90s.


matty said...

Blake, Thank you for this interview with my favourite photographer, whom I discovered through B a couple of years ago, your review made me rush out and buy Warwick Mountain Series. Always a pleasure to hear him speak. Glad to hear he has another book in the pipeline already too! In a box upon the sea is beautiful and confounding.
(also, good to have you back and posting regularly!)

Nicholas Gaffney said...

Thank you for this. I had Phil as a teacher during my first semester of grad school at Pratt. Practically the first words out of his mouth: "It's not too late to transfer!" (I think he may have been done with the place.) But I stuck with it, and feel fortunate to have had him for the semester.

Warwick Mountain Series is a great, truly underrated book, and I look forward to seeing his new one. I'm glad he mentioned Teaching Photography. I teach photography as well, and often look to that short, perfect book for "inspiration" (whatever that means), or just to refresh myself.

Unknown said...

Anyone interested in making either photos or poems should tape this interview to the door and reread almost any part of it before heading out into the world in the morning. Or even better, at night.

artworknyc said...

As an undergraduate, I heard about Philip (from the Pratt photography faculty) before I met him the following week, back in the fall of 1970. I studied with him the following year and then did my MFA in photography with him in the 1980s.

Although I'm currently drawing in ink and not making photographs I treasure every moment I've spent with him and everything I've learned. Thank you for this wonderful interview <3

Rensomatic said...

Blake, I almost never comment but now I feel I have to, thanks for this interview. Never heard of Perkis before but I had a lot of resonances, so to me it's a great new find on a sunday evening.
Or was it..? I teach photography at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, and last week I gave a group of students an example of how you decide what is in and out of your frame determines the meaning of your photograph. After reading the interview I searched for the Teaching Photography book on google and read some pages in a .pdf sample. I was shocked to find the exact same example that I have been using for many years, absolutely convinced that I made up that example by myself! I don't remember anything else written on that page or in the sample so that left me quite confused. Did I see it before? I would have bet my M7 ánd 9 on it that I haven't… I ordered the book right away.

Gus P. said...

Love this work . . . and love this conversation . . . Thanks for doing it Blake.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this interview Blake and for all the important things I had the chance to learn through it. Philip Perkis is one of my truly favorite photographers even since I bought his monograph The Sadness of Men. Too bad his last book is out of my reach.

Unknown said...

Thanks very much for posting this thoughtful interview. I wonder if you have considered making a video recording of an interview. I met Philip while visiting Cyrilla's studio about twelve years ago. The studio visit was eye opening. And then I had the great fortune to be invited for dinner and to watch as Philip and one his friends discussed his friend's new digital prints that he'd brought with him. As everyone who meets Philip probably realizes, his presence is as important - as generous and wise - as his words. The inflection of his voice, the joy of looking, even the pauses to think reveal an artist who is both serious and playful. I think you would be an excellent person with whom to hold this conversation.

Bill Hefley said...

It’s been over 60 years since Phil and I talked. Ah! You would not have recognized the young skinny RB-36 Tail Gunner just starting off into the world of photography. What a great ride and gift for all.

Philip Perkis said...

To: Bill Hefley
I remember you---