Photography in Motion
A Profile of Barry Perlus, from the Fall 2016 Issue of AAP News.
"I've always been intuitive about movement, the motion of things," says Associate Professor Barry Perlus. From a young age, he would regularly take things apart to see how all the pieces moved together to create a functioning machine.
Now, after 47 years as a professional photographer and professor, movement is still at the heart of his work. His most recent project focusing on Jantar Mantars, a group of historic observatories in India, uses panoramic, digital equipment to capture the buildings the Indians used to track the movement of the planets and stars.
The integration of science into his work is not surprising. Growing up in the 1960s in central New Jersey, he had a "split affinity" in high school. He liked art, and took art classes whenever he could fit them in, and was made photography editor for his high school yearbook. Photography instruction wasn't offered at his school, so he began teaching himself and visited museums and galleries during trips to New York City — but his school had more support for science and engineering, which, at the time, presented a clearer future.
"I was very good at physics — movement, weight, and mass," he says, "and while that sometimes was applied to art, art was not a very strongly taught subject in my school district. In the 1960s we were competing with the Russians in science and engineering — so school really encouraged me in that area."
With a scientific career in mind, Perlus chose Case Institute in Cleveland for college. But as he got further into his studies, he became less and less interested in making science or engineering his career focus. He had joined the college newspaper as a photographer and was hired as a freelancer by the college communications office.
"I found the expressive aspect of photography compelling," he says. "It was a way to convey something about what I was experiencing and discovering about the world I was growing into." His work for the communications office was highly successful. "There were a lot of important people coming through the campus — presidential candidates, members of the Black Power movement," he recalls.
"I got more and more assignments — I was a kid, so nobody paid any attention to me, and no one was self-conscious. I was getting these on-the-spot photojournalistic scenes that the university really liked."
During his sophomore year, he took a photo class with an adjunct professor named Nicholas Hlobeczy — a student and friend of Minor White. "The course used an experimental approach developed by White, based on White's experience with Zen Buddhism and the teachings of Russian philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff. They used photography as a way to practice 'heightened awareness,' as White called it," says Perlus. "It was an approach to creative work that treated one's own state of awareness as part of the process — something that I have continued to explore in my work and life." Case Institute and Western Reserve University had merged the year Perlus matriculated, and, in 1969, the university announced the creation of the Undergraduate Scholar Program, a way for students to create their own curriculum. Perlus was accepted into the program in 1970, crafted his own major incorporating photography, art history, urban studies, and architecture, and graduated in 1972. Along the way, he picked up enough freelance photography work to fully support himself.
After graduation, through his ongoing connection with university communications, Perlus was introduced to a young writer named Alan Glazen who was starting his own advertising agency and wanted to have a photographer on staff. Working with Glazen, Perlus was able to get experience he wouldn't have otherwise had. "I shot a tractor parts catalog and made it look glamorous; I did a shoot for a company that made maternity undergarments — which was a very interesting experience. And I built a diverse portfolio of work."
Perlus took that experience and, in 1975, started a commercial studio with a longtime friend, Barney Taxel. "We started pretty much from scratch, borrowing from our parents to buy used photo equipment. And we didn't really have any accounts of our own — we had to create a book and just put ourselves out there," he says. Little by little, using their contacts from previous jobs, they made their way into the agencies and began to secure new clients and create a successful business.
"But then I got bored," Perlus says. "I was teaching a class in the evening once a week . . . and I loved it — I would come away feeling so energized and emotionally charged — and I remembered a moment from one of the workshops I had taken with Minor White, when I felt, and even said out loud, 'someday I'm going to teach.' That was a real epiphany, and pretty much set my direction." He decided to pursue an M.F.A., sold his share of the business to Taxel, and enrolled at Ohio University (OU).
Graduate school was an eye-opening experience. "I had to do some unlearning, and I failed my first review," he says. "But it was a special opportunity to become a student again. OU was one of the oldest programs in the U.S., with well-established photography and printmaking departments, and I was able to do a third year of study, exploring artists' books, letterpress, and dye-transfer printing." Perlus graduated in May 1984, and was hired into a one-year position at Cornell.
Recognizing that the demand for a photo instructor was high, Perlus's position was made permanent the following year. He was able to bring something new to photo instruction, introducing students to his specialties of large-format cameras and studio techniques drawn from his experience in commercial and advertising photography.
By the early 1990s, the introduction of the computer and digital imaging devices provided new opportunities for both art students and faculty. Following fellow art professor Stan Bowman — "he was on the cutting edge of digital imaging" — and then with the encouragement of Professor Don Greenberg
in computer graphics, Perlus began to learn the new technology. He received two Faculty Advisory Board on Information Technologies grants to teach a class with Margaret Corbit, then director of outreach for the Theory Center, on virtual worlds, and how to explore interactive media through art.
The movement into digital also changed Perlus's personal work. During a study leave in India in 1988, while photographing ancient temples, he saw the Jantar Mantar observatories for the first time. He captured them in abstract, black-and-white photos using conventional equipment. "The Jantar Mantar wasn't originally on my itinerary, but I fell in love with it," he says. "I knew I wanted to return and work more extensively."
His chance came in 2001, when he returned to India with both a conventional wide-field camera and his first digital panoramic rig, a Nikon COOLPIX coupled with a special panoramic tripod head. "My work in film-based photography had been moving toward wider and wider views, using a panoramic format, but in one day I proved to myself that the digital panorama was the way to go," he says. "It was so completely immersive, and removed the problem of the conventional frame — I could capture multiple, panoramic views as if someone was turning their head to take it all in." The new technology set his path for the project. He learned web design, created a website, and has been presenting the project using digital projections inside planetariums across the country. Perlus has also applied his strong belief in interdisciplinary exploration to his position as associate dean. Appointed to the role in 2008, his focus has been academic issues and student well-being, and on working across the university to make interdisciplinary, concurrent degrees easier for students to access.
"Since the 70s, B.F.A. students have had the opportunity to complete a second degree with arts and sciences or engineering," he says. "But students want more options — they want to pursue concurrent degrees in other colleges like Human Ecology or CALS, with majors including communications, fiber science and apparel design, landscape architecture, or natural resources. And it makes sense that they should be able to do that — it makes them stronger scholars." Perlus created a working group of registrars and admissions personnel in several colleges who developed a formal policy and set of procedures enabling more students across the university to take advantage of the concurrent degree option.
Another accomplishment as associate dean has been developing and supporting AAP Connect, the college's career services group. Perlus's experience starting the business with Taxel continues to resonate with him. "I want students to be prepared, to know how to present themselves," he says. "I want them to learn that to get a job, you have to go and talk to people. You can't pressure them and you can't act needy. You need to know how to speak, to present your work, to be friendly, and to be patient. Because if you believe in your work and do what you love — just do what you really love — the rest will fall into place."
By Rebecca Bowes