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Book review by Contributing Writer Suzanne Révy
There is a moment each morning when I am no longer asleep, but not yet awake. My dreams fade from memory; I sense the covers over my body; I slowly become aware of the rain or wind or birds chirping outside; I open my eyes to light-dappled shapes and sometimes the dog’s nose. It is a quiet moment of grace between the paralysis of deep sleep and the onslaught of the day ahead. Some days I can savor that moment longer and, on occasion, I feel it when immersed in art. Such is the case with two books recently published by mentors of mine: In a Box Upon the Sea by Philip Perkis and Summer Days: Staten Island by Christine Osinski.
Philip Perkis was the head of the Photography Department at the Pratt Institute when I was a student there in the early eighties. I’ll confess, I did not understand his photographs at the time, yet have felt the influence of his teaching throughout my career. Having studied his pictures more attentively over the past twelve or fifteen years, I’ve grown to understand and appreciate how he makes sense of the world through photographs. I find his most recent book to be his deepest and most moving work. As I leaf through In a Box Upon the Sea, those jumbled emotions of my early morning transition are stirred. It’s an extraordinary gift to be gently taken there when looking through this beautiful book.
There is a profound sensitivity to the human condition in In a Box Upon the Sea, yet only a few images depict the human figure as their main subject. They are meditative, atmospheric and abstract studies of dark and light. Perkis quotes the early 20th Century philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff on the dedication page, “To-find-out-and-elucidate-the-Truth-only-through-the-tonalities-existing-between-white-and-black.” The content and rhythm of the sequence is achieved at a dulcet and mellow pace with subtle details echoed from picture to picture. Occasionally punctuated with short written anecdotes, the overall tenor of the book is pensive and tinged with a certain sadness, but there is humor present in the stories (three of them improbably involve a banana) and in a few of the pictures. One such image shows a sinuous, gaunt arm reaching out to touch the nose of a camel. This is one of the more literal images, but there remains a strong sense of abstraction to it.
“Art”, Perkis has written, “lives in the tension between abstraction and description.” As I delve deeper into his book, I meander through darkened landscapes, cacophonous urban environments, snow covered dirt, empty rooms strewn with unoccupied chairs, abandoned gloves, and pristine gallery walls, among others. It’s an oddly terrifying journey, yet affirms for me the notion of a collective human spirit.
Christine Osinski, another former professor of mine, also published a book of work recently called Summer Days: Staten Island. I learned large format and non-silver printing techniques from Osinski while a student at Pratt and, years later, she agreed to be one of my mentors while I pursued an MFA. I am grateful for her guidance.
The images in Osinski’s book were made in the early eighties after she and her husband moved to the “forgotten” borough New York City’s Staten Island. Over two summers, out of a desire to learn more about the borough, she began to explore the place with her 4-by-5 inch Linhof camera. An interview in the book reveals that Osinski “took long walks late in the afternoon with the expectation that there might be something of interest around a corner or down a crooked sidewalk. I positioned myself as an itinerant photographer without a plan, recording whatever was of interest to me that day.” She describes this work as an adventure, which became a project much later, and it represents a fragmented journey.
As I page through Summer Days: Staten Island, the emotional tone of the images differs from the Perkis book, but shares its honesty. Osinski offers views of a place in close proximity to one of the most vibrant cities on earth – and indeed Staten Island is part of that city – but one that has been largely overlooked by artists and photographers. She was free to explore without the pressure of a local art scene looking over her shoulder. The working class neighborhoods and vernacular architecture resonated with her own midwestern roots, allowing Osinski to discover the coincident importance of geography and her own personal history as she made these pictures.
Summer Days: Staten Island is a collection of landscapes and portraits. The landscapes feature cars, the occasional tree and small figures. Man Walking Dalmatians and Boy Pointing a Rifle at a Car are striking near the opening of the book. Many of the portraits are reminiscent of Diane Arbus, particularly several double portraits, but without Arbus’ judgment. I’m particularly fond of Two Girls with Matching Outfits and Two Shirtless Boys.
Deeper in the book, there are portraits of houses and front yards. One in particular, Jumping Dog, depicts a small dog struggling to clear his yard fence. In another, the front yard is the place for an extraordinary group portrait, Family, which reminds me of Paul Strand’s work. There are several portraits of young men flaunting their muscles, and the lovely Woman and Bird on a Bench. These public interfaces all hint at deeper personal narratives that are the true focus of Osinski’s absorption and they succeed in engaging the viewer’s imagination. Osinski describes her camera as a transitional object that became a conversation piece… a way to negotiate her picture taking.
My own pictures are quite different from either of these two photographers, but they both played a pivotal role in shaping my understanding and practice in photography. After losing touch with their work in the late 80’s and through the 90’s, over the last twelve or fifteen years, I’ve come to know it again with a far greater understanding and appreciation for how their lessons shaped my thinking about photography.
Suzanne Révy is a fine art photographer who creates visual diaries of her family’s life and is a Contributing Writer to What Will You Remember? Earning her BFA from the Pratt Institute and MFA from the New Hampshire Institute of Art, Révy has worked as Photography Editor at U.S. News & World Report and Yankee Magazine and has exhibited her work at museums and galleries throughout New England and in New York. Révy is currently on the faculty at the New England School of Photography and a Board Member of the Photographic Resource Center in Boston.
In a Box Upon the Sea
2015 © Philip Perkis
Published by Anmoc
Summer Days: Staten Island
2015 © Christine Osinski
Essay by Paul Moakley
Interview by A.H. Data
Published by Damiani