"Just To See - A Mystery" is a film portrait of photographer Philip Perkis, who has been working in photography for about 60 years. From childhood he had exceptional vision, but also severe learning disabilities. A 'dreamer,' he spent time looking out the window or walking in the woods by himself. He loved to see things. He failed at school and joined the Air Force, where he befriended a photographer, learned to make pictures—and never stopped. Philip Perkis shoots with black and white film exclusively, and makes mostly relatively small sized prints, which have been widely exhibited in museums and galleries around the world. He says he is trying to push the limits of his materials for maximum range of tone and expression.
About 10 years ago, he suddenly lost the sight of his left eye, the 'good' eye he took pictures with. He sees now more like a camera, i.e., monocularly, through his right eye, necessitating a major adjustment in his being and in his work. Adapting to the change, he continues to find meaning in making connections to and finding parallels between inner and outer worlds through sight. His search is never-ending.
The director, Jin Ju Lee, first met Philip Perkis in his photography class at the School of Visual Arts in New York City seven years ago. At that time she was deeply inspired by both his photographs and his method of teaching. The relationship continued. During these seven years of contact, a museum retrospective of his work was mounted and a second monograph of his work was published, while he also had a second heart surgery and a kidney transplant. While still in recovery from these surgeries, she asked permission to make a film about him, and he agreed. The initial inspiration for the film was his small book, "Teaching Photography: Notes Assembled," written after 40 years of teaching at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. The film is built around this distillation of his experiences. The director herself practices Philip's exercises in seeing with her camcorder and some of these exercises are shown in the film. The intimate, but respectful—and often playful—relationship between teacher and former student is revealed throughout the film.