Issue #145  7/1/2008
Philip Perkis: Sadness of Men

By Matt Damsker


2008, Quantuck Lane Press, distributed by W.W. Norton & Co., New York, NY. 280 pages; 125 duotone photographs. $45 clothbound; ISBN No. 978-1-59372-034-6. Publisher website: http://www.quantucklanepress.com .

Although Philip Perkis has not enjoyed the sort of showy career of many of his contemporaries, his 50 years of photography have made their mark. As professor emeritus at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, he continues to influence generations of artists, and this first published collection of his work--keyed to a recent major retrospective exhibit at the Alan Klotz Gallery in New York--is not only a rich testament to his distinctive eye but also carries more than a whiff of immortality.

Perkis is a master of telling detail and broad, cinematic sweep, while his gentle tonalities and unfussy technique remind us that photography need not be sharp-edged or intensely worked in order to convey a powerful sense of place and a complex vision. Max Kozloff, in his eloquent introduction to this volume, notes that "Perkis is interested in barriers, walls, barbed wire, broken structures, and plastic sheeting: all these suggest a wish to see something on their other side…As one follows him, he introduces a world of moods, some of them unsettling, most of them visualized without drama." Indeed, following Perkis through five decades of work is to move from the urban maze and fragmentations of New York City, the heat and dust of Mexico, the spiritual acreage and specific stones of the Holy Land, and many spots in between.

As the detached observer with a Leica, Perkis doesn't provoke our sympathy or insist on our complicity when, for example, he captures decisive moments such as a steer about to be death-stunned by a gun wielded by an anonymous arm in a nameless abattoir. The soft grays and angular geometry of the photo are the matrix of life and death in which the animal--an organic reality, all snout and skull, hoof and hide--is a dumb player, and we can feel the sense of occasion here, just as we can feel the weight of the moment in which a matador is handed the killing sword in another Perkis image.

These, and the less populated photos of landscapes or drab human spaces, underscore the smart irony of the title, "The Sadness of Men," for Perkis is expressing not so much the desolations of life as the daily burden of living--working, moving and seeing--and the implicit finitude of even the most unspoiled vista. As Kozloff suggests, the emphasis on looking through barriers promotes the notion that the unseen is most worth seeing, the sealed-off most worth rescuing, especially when faced with the spiritual implications of, say, Jerusalem's western wall. And where cats or sheep are photographed within rectangles of pure sunlight, we have a sharp sense of the holy as it scatters through the everyday.

Which is not to say that Perkis transcends cliché or trite formulation at every turn. An image of a modern mother cradling her newborn is an artful Madonna and Child, but also an obvious one, as the mother's blissfully transported expression lands us in suffocatingly sentimental territory. And in the minimalist vein, Perkis's seemingly random captures don't always work: a shot of balloons on a ceiling evokes William Eggleston, but in its gray-on-gray flatness it serves only to remind us that Eggleston's insistence on the subtle color of the quotidian is what propels his photos beyond the quotidian.

Nonetheless--and perhaps because of such flaws, for they help to denote the reach which exceeds the great grasp of Perkis's artistry--"The Sadness of Men" is a major codification of a life in photography and a towering photography book. The desultory charm of Perkis's style--warm in tone, taking on the world with a grainy 400 ASA modesty that draws us in, whisperingly, rather than gunning for in-your-face effect--sets him nicely apart from the masters with which it is too easy to compare him, from Atget to Walker Evans or Robert Frank. Quietly, with a wistful, world-weary shrug, Philip Perkis has earned his place in the pantheon.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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