‘ … was once fat, with great swathes of cellulite, folds in thighs and arms,
blubbery, utterly hairless, cross-eyed with a massive hydrocephalic cranium,
no teeth, nonexistent chin, lathered in spit-up and drool, an extremely small
penis, no balls at all, pants full of wet yellow shit. Things have improved
marginally since. Now have hair.’
A ruminative Perkin Lovely struggles (at Homily’s request) to join the formative dots of his unlikely career as a photographer, writer and fisher of men. It’s one of the many astute insights he offered when I spoke to him several weeks ago on the phone from a corridor at the medium security detention centre in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he has been given the opportunity to reflect on the trajectory of a life immersed in photography, as well as a plum job in the laundry. Perkin is one of our all time favourite photographers. We worked with him several times swabbing the 4 and 5 train platforms of Atlantic Avenue station on community service, and once forking plastic bottles from the verges of the Pallisades Parkway. The most exciting part of the process is when he beckons you over with an urgent nod (and that peculiar hissing sound he makes with tongue and incisors) and shows you the heavily thumbed sachet of personal snaps he keeps tucked in the lining of his boxer-briefs, because it feels like a Prison Christmas when you open it. There are the smartly executed pictures that he emailed you about before the police broke in and then there are always new surprises, images and ideas you would never have imagined unless you’d had a recent stint as a veterinarian technician.
We consider Perkin to be one of the most peculiar and stunted photographers of our generation; he also cares very deeply about a hard-drive he misplaced in a motel on the outskirts of Tulsa and was very generous with his time for this interview. The wide-ranging topics discussed were only slightly curtailed by his access to a supply of quarters, the faint awareness of third-party shallow breathing on the line and his religious reluctance to wax imperious about photography. Here is a portion of our conversation, a latterday homage to A Photo Editor’s seminal series of perspicacious interviews with luminaries of the photography industry.
~ • ~
H: You’re on your 20th week inside, right?
PL: Yeah, couple more days and it’ll be an end to shanks up the Keister.
H: ‘Scuse me?
PL: Sorry, old boy. It’s the chameleon in me. I once participated in a project to celebrate the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accord called Thongs of the Maya. Two days soaking in an indigenous temazcal hut composing amorous limericks in kaqchikel. Back in the 80′s when I was in Bethnal Green on the Genitals of the Pearly Kings & Queens project for UNESCO, I became spontaneously fluent in cockney rhyming slang. To this day I know a complete James Blunt when I see one.
H: For the readers who, unlike myself, have not had the benefit of participating in one of your iChat ‘Beggar My Neighbour’ cyberthons, could you describe your current condition?
PL: Furtive, metamorphic.
H: As in …?
PL: Over the years there have been several maggoty pupa, chrysalis, grub and inchworm phases. Beards, peculiar glasses, hair here, hair there. Like Carlos the Jackal. But never as yet the exulted butterfly. I’m skeptical about the veracity of the life-cycle as taught in third-form biology. Why do you ask?
H: Somehow I hoped that it would speak to the broader picture, if you know what I mean. A mutual friend of ours (was it Michael Kaye?) once described you as ‘a frowning, runty neanderthal’, which I thought was an interesting take.
PL: Well, there’s unquestionably an elemental runtish caveman theme; peering out from beneath a shelf-like brow, scuttling across the periphery of your vision, doing something dreadful with his gopher-skin loincloth. Simian, I suppose. But not in the cute banded-lemur kind of way. More in the PG Tips ‘avez-vous cuppa?’ line, an ornery stage-chimp goosing the female extras with leathery fingers and proffering a leprous bite when reprimanded.
H: You consider yourself to possess a dangerous bite?
PL: No, no, of course not. Just the snarl of one. Much more likely to retreat behind the scenery and shit my pants.
H: You sound relatively content with your condition though …
PL: Content? As if I’ve got it under control and am primed to add a few more features? A turgid bulge in the bow of my underpants that might just be deftly balled socks? Malodorus red-arsed baboon, absent-mindedly palming a tuberous phallus? No, no. Not content. Resigned. When you’ve looked in the mirror and been confronted by a verbatim facsimile of the Wikipedia image entry for Satyr, you learn to shrug and move on.
H: Is there anything in particular that you think distinguishes you from your peers?
PL: I have a dreadful scar running like an enormous and thickly segmented worm across my abdomen. It used to be bulging and tumescent, puckered with Halloween stitch-holes, but since I’ve contracted middle-aged bloat it is now more of a long, unsightly slit, a perspiring cleft tugging unevenly at its fatty envelope like the bald, nightmarish vagina of a really fat woman. Except that it crouches where no vagina should be. I also have the glassy, semi-blind eyes of a nematode, lurking microscopically behind jam-jar glasses. Did I mention the thin skein of weasel fur that carpets my buttocks? The nails on my blunt and nubbish fingers are bitten bloody, cuticles swollen into the sore sucker pads of an Amazonian tree frog. I have the soft, prim feet of a Japanese girl, so small I can still buy shoes with flashing lights and compasses in the soles. My teeth, Arthurian shields ground down to squarish slabs: snorting mule teeth, splayed, rearing forward and outward as if to rob you of your carrots. The overall effect is of a human facsimile forged from the mangled remnants of a suicide bombing.
H: You’re a photographer – are you really semi-blind?
PL: I have the kind of morbid short-sightedness that calls for the deployment of spectacles so architecturally monolithic that they can only be held in place by an arcane system of pulleys and cantilevers. The lenses were ground from the same glass as the Hubble Telescope and have the effect of rendering my eyes no larger than summit points on a topographical map and my head several feet thinner than it actually is: entire cities can be concealed within their microscopy, whole colonies of ants lazily incinerated on camping trips. I actually have a complete canon of disabilities, most of which are psychological. But to speak of those we would need immunity from prosecution.
H: How do you cope with your disabilities?
PL: By inflicting bitterness and recrimination upon others.
H: Given the opportunity, would you make any fundamental changes in your life?
PL: Any change would likely result in the wholsesale collapse of the loosely strung third-world bamboo refugee camp. It’s effort enough to remember not to wipe one’s bottom with one’s facecloth. Having said that, I wouldn’t mind having my foreskin back, the one Judaeo-Christian dogma hacked off in the name of cleanliness (but we all know better). With that in place I’d be a third of the way to an obedient and elegently statuesque pepper-grinder.
H: In the nature/narture debate, where do you stand?
PL: I follow the maternal line, which I’m sure ignites a supernova of hellish possibility in the mind of the viewer. Common decency demands I don’t elaborate. That generation upon generation of slowly mutating genetic material can have led to this is a sad vilification of Darwin. Then again, it’s hardly an argument for intelligent design either.
H: Do you think you’ve changed much, over the years?
PL: I was once fat, with great swathes of cellulite, folds in thighs and arms, blubbery, utterly hairless, cross-eyed with a massive hydrocephalic cranium, no teeth, nonexistent chin, lathered in spit-up and drool, an extremely small penis, no balls at all, pants full of wet, yellow shit. Things have improved marginally since. I now have hair. But as one’s friends and colleagues slowly implode into hoary gargoyles, the journey downwards becomes less solitary. You see the palsied shock on erstwhile handsome faces as they pass you on the waterflume to hideousness. Complexions become scribble, teeth nubs, chins goitre into horseshoe airline neck-pillows, eyes like Jean-Paul Sartre’s, scalps are arid blizzards, skin suet, guts migrate south in search of rest, eclipsing pendulous, tortoisy genitals. Contemporaries – the ones who used to get the girls – appear to have run both laps of the Grand National. And the objects of their departed affections, the girls in question also look to have gone through Becher’s Brook instead of over it; now they limp on, anusmouthed, Tiresian-breasted, turkeywattle-loined.
H: Wow. Where does it go from there?
H: Or surgery, I suppose. Have you ever considered having an elective procedure?
H: At what age do you think you were at your best?
PL: In utero.
H: And worst?
PL: Oh, nine to thirteen. I was an adult Ronnie Corbett compressed and stuffed into a prepubescent skin. A Ronnie Corbett sausage. The Ronnie Corbett version of the kid in The Tin Drum. A 50-year old bowling-ball Ronnie Corbett head slackly bobbing on the apex of a little boy’s body. People would visibly recoil when I turned around, like the dwarf from Don’t Look Now. And furthermore, I went to Military School. So there’s this shrunken Ronnie Corbett bobble-headed bantam in full parade blues marching to Sambre et Meuse, arms half-cartwheeling, fay little hands fluttering about like moths, head choked fatly into a beret. Like a terrible Photoshop South Park disaster. Really, I should have been culled with a club or left in a bag under a warped sheet of plywood.