Eric Peris deserves more attention, although he vehemently shuns any attempts to aggrandise his oeuvre and his own self.
The National Art Gallery (NAG), in its effort to document and build the archives of prominent figures in the local art scene, has chosen to spotlight the works of the photographer, artist and former journalist, and rightly so.
Peris, 84, is among the few photographers who are still dedicated to the art, having dabbled in it since the late 1960s. Speaking over the phone, Peris says he is pleasantly surprised that NAG would consider putting together an exhibition in his name.
“This is the first time I’m showcasing my work there. Besides close friends, the Sutra Gallery has supported me extensively over the years,” says the icon in the field of fine art and journalism who held his first exhibition in 1982.
“I will always remember what my mother said during my first solo. She said my work is interesting but make sure there are no repeats in the following works. ‘There is so much material out there; don’t be lazy,’ she ordered.” And her advice stuck. He has captured scenes from rural Malaysia, flowers, scenery, old trains and the rare human figure. As long as he records an image differently from the norm, he says, his job is done.
“I have photographed some dancers in motion, including Datuk Ramli Ibrahim. You can see his prana, or energy force, in the photo. I don’t usually do people; Mother Nature is the best. In everything I do, I remember to have patience. Don’t rush, or you might miss capturing a moment,” he says.
Peris is responsible for the entire artistic process, from ideation to the final print. He used to develop the photographs in the darkroom but at the advice of doctors, he had to put a stop to it. “That was in the 1990s. I do miss the darkroom but I have my health to think about. A picture is a picture, whether taken in the old way or new. The element has to be fresh.”
Throughout our conversation, Peris repeatedly states that the camera is a dodo. It needs an individual to work it, otherwise it will not function at its optimal level. “Photography is a function of a loner. It is interesting but also very punishing,” he ruminates.
The Eric Peris Archive Project exhibition showcases more than 100 collections of documents, newspapers, brochures and artworks from his collection and the National Visual Arts Development Board. His body of work is extensive, as he has 43 solos in 50 years.
The exhibit is divided into solo/group exhibitions, Gitanjali (a photographic book by Peris that explores Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize work), a video room and sections dedicated to his father, O Don Peris, and the tin mines near his Puchong house and in Ipoh. There is one oil painting his father made of his mother, the 1933 Portrait of My Wife in a Wedding Dress, which he says is a must-see.
Peris is very focused on his work and does not think about “how he wants to be remembered”. “One just carries on” is his short reply. He is currently preparing for an exhibition in remembrance of his brother and sister, who have both long passed away.
Guided by his artistic parents — father, a famous painter, and mother, a dancer — he hopes to put together a body of work that will celebrate the love, memories and loss he has experienced. This September, he will be holding another exhibition at Sutra Gallery with his good friend K F Choy.
Before he hangs up, he offers some words of wisdom for photographers out there. “Believe in yourself and what you are capable of. Don’t think you can produce better photos with a more expensive camera. Ninety-five per cent of the work happens through your mind, thought and idea. Just keep going.”
The 'Eric Peris Archive Project' is on at the National Art Gallery until May 2024. For more information, see here.
This article first appeared on June 12, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.