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Book Review: In a Box Upon the Sea

Book Review In a Box Upon the Sea By Philip Perkis Reviewed by Blake Andrews Philip Perkis is what you might call a photographer's photographer. He uses simple equipment to record his world on black-and-white film.

In  Box Upon the Sea.
By  Philip Perkis. Anmoc Press, 2016.
In a Box Upon the Sea. 
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

In a Box Upon the Sea.
Photographs by Philip Perkis.
Anmoc Press, Seoul, South Korea, 2016. In English/Korean. 170 pp., 57 black-and-white illustrations, 11½x11¼".

Philip Perkis is what you might call a photographer's photographer. He uses simple equipment to record his world on black-and-white film. "When I see something that moves me or interests me," he says, "I take a picture. I don't care what it's a picture of." In the contemporary photo world that approach is somewhat antiquated. Perkis' photographs fit more easily into the 1970s aesthetic than any current gestalt. Nevertheless he's cultivated a small fan base.

The niche he has carved is mostly among fellow photographers and teachers, many of whom view him as a sage. With an absentminded hairdo, 'stache, and glasses, his appearance is straight out of "dreamer" central casting, a cross between Einstein and Brautigan. His 2005 manifesto Teaching Photography: Notes Assembled is treasured by educators and, somewhat improbably for such a nondescript booklet, has become collectible in certain quarters. That book was followed a few years later with the minor breakout retrospective, The Sadness Of Men, a monograph which, while not exactly putting him on the map, quietly solidified his reputation among the cognoscenti.

In a Box Upon The Sea. By  Philip Perkis. Anmoc Press, 2016.

If Perkis has flown mostly under the radar, one gets the sense that's just fine by him. Reading interviews or watching the recent biographical film, Just To See — A Mystery, his reclusive nature is evident. He lives in quiet house in the country with his wife, the setting for many photos. So it seems suitable —expected, really— that he's released his latest book with almost no fanfare on an obscure Korean publisher, Anmoc Books out of Seoul. Priced at $110 and available only online from the publisher or through Photo-Eye, In A Box Upon The Sea won't crack the New York Times bestseller list any time soon. But that's ok. The target market is old school photographers.

In A Box Upon The Sea contains 57 recent photos interspersed occasionally with curt anecdotes by Perkis recounting observations or events. Some are quite pithy. Others lean koan-like to the absurd. A sequence of three toward the book's middle, for example, recounts interactions with bananas. Each passage takes up a page in English, then a page in Korean. Liberal use of blank pages reinforces the languid pace. By the time all images, anecdotes, translations, and blanks are gathered the whole thing is a surprisingly hefty 170 pages. But despite its size the book is ascetic, not grandiose. The sparse zen tone is perfectly encapsulated by Perkis's short afterword, a subtle rejoinder to the verbal diarrhea accompanying many contemporary photo projects. Here it is in its entirety: "I started photography in the air force in 1957 and haven't stopped. Teaching became a serious part of my life in the 60s. I remain an unrepentant modernist."

In a Box Upon The Sea. By  Philip Perkis. Anmoc Press, 2016.

Perkis knows himself well, and indeed In A Box Upon The Sea displays the familiar hallmarks of modernism. The Minor White dictum applies here: "One not only should photograph things for what they are but for what else they are." In photos which include his shadow and appropriate outside images, he toys with irony and the nature of making photographs. Several photos —a twig in a sun patch or an urbanized X-scaffold, for example— seem to be pure visual experiments in monochrome, supported by careful form-based sequencing. Throughout the book the reader is struck repeatedly by Perkis basic working model, the 20th century flâneur, released from outside demands, free to observe, document, and, perhaps most importantly, apply authorship.

In a Box Upon The Sea. By  Philip Perkis. Anmoc Press, 2016.

It seems oxymoronic to call modernism old school. But it's become that, and Perkis' process superannuated. With the new book the gap seems to be widening. Whereas The Sadness Of Men sometimes struck a Decisive Moment cord which jibed with the contemporary street renaissance, In A Box Upon The Sea is a photographic return to the enigmatic —muddy?— style of his first book, Warwick Mountain Series from 1978. As street photos the new work might not pass muster, but as street poems? Just maybe. The scenes are quiet and earthy, buttressed by dense printing compressed around central grey tones. No wild extremes. Instead the mood is inward looking and determined, occasionally whimsical. A driveway in the snow. A display window of hooks. A train track. It's just Perkis wandering with a camera. What makes him stop and take a photo? “I don’t think about it much because it is not intellectual," he says. "It is purely visual." Sometimes the camera is shaky. Sometimes it's out of focus. Either way it's him. He's down to one good eye now but still going strong, and caring maybe even less than before what the outside world thinks.

In A Box Upon The Sea
is unlikely to win Perkis many new converts. Those used to a steady saturation of easily digested online images streams, or who follow the art-photo vanguard, should probably steer clear. But for the dedicated fan base who has enjoyed his past work —other old school modernists, mostly— they will be rewarded.

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at

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