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Philip Perkis

b. 1935

Philip Perkis was born in Boston to parents who had emigrated from Ukraine. As a child, he struggled in school; he learned only when he was fifty that he is dyslexic. Having failed at school, in 1954 he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. While serving as a tail gunner on a B-36, fellow airman James O. Mitchell helped him get a camera and taught him how to use it. As soon as Perkis started making photographs, he knew he was “home.” After leaving the military, he attended the San Francisco Art Institute, studying briefly with Ansel Adams, as well as with Dorothea Lange, Minor White, and John Collier, Jr. Perkis graduated with a BFA in 1962 and moved to New York City, relocating to Warwick, New York, in 1970. He returned to New York City in 1980, where he lived for the next thirty-two years. He currently lives and works in Stony Point, New York.

Perkis is unusual in that, as a photographer, he has no attachment to any particular subject or theme. His vision is the unifying principle, which makes his work difficult to categorize. One unifying aspect is that all his photographs are moderately-sized black-and-white silver prints. He makes very few prints of each negative.

Photographer Helen Levitt says of his work: “Philip’s pictures are not like anyone else’s. They are like looking at a dream.”

Perkis has had the opportunity to travel and photograph extensively. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and the recipient of a Wingate Paine Teaching Fellowship. He’s also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts (twice).

He has published seven books, including in 2001 a book on teaching photography that has been translated into several languages. He’s had numerous solo shows, and has been included in many group shows, most recently the 2021 exhibition The Magic Is in the Seeing: Philip Perkis and His Creative Legacy (Undercroft Gallery, New York City). A professor emeritus and former chair of photography at the Pratt Institute, Perkis has also taught at the School of Visual Arts, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Cooper Union, among others.

His work can be found in the permanent collections of many major museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Savannah’s Telfair Museums.

Due to a retinal occlusion in 2007, Perkis lost the vision in his left eye, which was his dominant one. After not being able to take pictures for six months, he resumed photographing, with his right eye. This change led, in his opinion, to photographs of greater emotional depth that were qualitatively different from those he had done before. “Closer to the bone,” as he has described them, “more abstract,” and “more akin to drawing.”

Around 2015, the vision in Perkis’s right eye began to weaken due to macular degeneration. In 2021, due to increasing vision loss, Perkis consciously made his last photographs, a series of sixty pictures. He is no longer making photographs, but is still writing, with help.

Philip Perkis near his home in Stony Point, New York, in 2021.
Photo by Cyrilla Mozenter.
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