It’s Friday evening, 6pm. We find ourselves early for an interview with Phillip Leeds, who’s here in Singapore for the launch of Big Shots!, a book of Polaroid portraits he’s been compiling for over a decade that could very well serve as the new generation’s Red Books by Andy Warhol. Leeds hails from the viciously creative New York, and was tour manager to some of the biggest names in the music industry (Pharrell wrote the book’s foreword), while also the global brand manager of Billionaire Boys Club, before turning his focus to documenting the A-listers around him. Naturally, we’re expecting a deeply artistic, flamboyant, somewhat intimidating caricature. Instead, we’re surprised by an unpretentiously candid gentlemanclad in a simple white tee and black pants, suffering serious jetlag from continuous continent hopping. We shake hands, he orders some sparkling water, and before you know it, we’re deep in conversation.
Congrats on Big Shots! Do you have a favorite shot in the book?
It varies day by day, but I really love all the images. I have them ingrained in me now from working to put the book together these past few months and sometimes get sick of seeing them. I’m really fond of Snoop’s picture though, the one with the white sunglasses. There’re a bunch of good pictures of Pharrell, and Rita Ora’s photo on the cover is one of my favorites too. I really like the picture of my dog – he really nailed it.
Can you recall any stories while looking at the photographs?
Yeah, almost all of them. The one with Snoop was hilarious. It was taken when I was working at Billionaire Boys Club and Snoop came down to our New York showroom. True to form, we had a bunch of swishers with copious amounts of marijuana, and it turned into a Snoop half-hour comedy hour. He was pretending to be Billionaire Boys Club’s customer service and helping himself to our inventory, picking stuff out and trying them on. In the picture, he’s wearing a Billionaire Boys Club bucket hat and white sunglasses which he had literally just opened up and put on. Big Shots! is named after a Polaroid camera model, The Big Shot, which is very unforgiving as it catches everything. Looking at the third picture of Snoop that day, it was almost like looking into his soul. He was super high, looking a little emotional. He’s not wearing his glasses so you can really see his face – and you just know that that’s f*cking Snoop, at the core.
Why shoot portraits with The Big Shot?
Portraits taken on The Big Shot are just so stark and there’s a repetitiveness to it, where everybody’s the same size in the pictures. I might be bigger than you, but we’re the same distance from the camera and take up the same space in each frame. What the camera dictates is what you get. I really like that about the pictures; it’s all about the subject, about the personality. It’s somewhat intimate and, at the same time, it’s a mugshot.
"It's hard to say if this is a book of hip-hop legends or visual artists...it's really more like 'the crossroads of Phillip'."
Why do you only take one photograph of each subject?
I feel like I’m intruding. I don’t want to inconvenience the subject or take up too much of their time. I like how, with one picture, it’s all about getting what we get and not being upset. The shots usually turn out great anyway. I feel like people often nail it on the first one, though they always think they blinked. I remember taking Jay Z’s picture after catching him in the hallway, at the place where we both worked. He stood against the wall with this baseball bat he’d received, making sure that the inscribed ‘Jay Z’ faced the camera. After I took the picture, he was like, “Shit, I think I blinked.” Now, I wasn’t trying to not take a second picture of Jay or anything, but I told him he probably blinked right after the flash, and that the cool thing about Polaroids is that we’d know in two minutes! He went, “Man, I don’t have two minutes. Let’s just do another one?” So he lines up his bat again and takes the almost exact same picture. Did he even blink the first time? No.
Do you like shooting in a particular style?
The Big Shot is fixed focus, so it’s really difficult to take a picture when the person I’m taking a picture of is moving. I usually tell people to relax and be themselves, and it’s okay if you want to give me energy and be crazy, but you might jump out of focus. I was at a party for Takashi [Murakami] in Hong Kong the other day, and Mister, who’s a Japanese painter, was there. He’s an older gentleman, but he was dressed like a sailor girl with a blue bib, red skirt, wig and a little barrette with a pompom. I just had to take a picture. He went over by his art, which was hanging at the party, and started jumping around doing karate kicks and stuff! So I winged it and the first two shots were incredible and in focus, even though he was jumping around.
Would you say that your photographs, like Andy Warhol’s in the ’70s and ’80s, try to capture the present era’s scene of artists and performers?
Well, getting The Big Shot was inspired by Warhol. I saw it at Red Books, an exhibition of his Polaroids. It was the wildest camera I’d ever seen, so I went home and bought one off eBay. Andy really did capture a wide variety of people just by crossing paths with them. Having grown up around the scene in the ’80s, with my dad in the music business, I’ve been exposed to all sorts of people as well. So when I started taking these pictures a decade ago, I wasn’t taking shots of rappers or artists; I was just taking photos of my friends and the people I’d meet. I wasn’t trying to be a photographer. I just wanted to keep the photos I took in a box, for myself, and maybe look at them on occasion. With how these pictures glimpse into different scenes, it’s hard to say if this is a book of hip-hop legends or visual artists, because there’s Talking Head’s David Byrne and RiFF RAFF, but there’s also shots of kids and dogs. It’s really more like the ‘crossroads of Phillip’.
Did the idea of publishing your personal collection of photographs as a book change anything for you?
Yes. The Big Shot is a really bulky camera, so I used to just keep it at the office or at home, taking pictures of the people who visited. After agreeing to do the book with Rizzoli, I remember feeling an immense amount of pressure, and started actively taking my camera with me to track my friends and acquaintances down for their pictures. Yet, there are still so many people I haven’t taken pictures of. People who should be in the book and people who are dead, that I should have photos of – but I guess it’s just never been camera, Phillip and that person in the same place.
Do you plan to continue with your photographic or publishing ventures?
I’d planned to finish this book and put the camera on a shelf, let it be a piece of art. FP’s not being made anymore, whatever. That’s changed because since the book came out, I’ve wanted to take more pictures, too. People have been asking, “Well, what about book number two?” The thing is, book number one is 14 years’ worth of photos! It’s a lot of pressure to come up with another 350 interesting photos. That said, I’m going to keep buying film and taking pictures until I can’t anymore.
It sounds weird to be called a photographer when you’ve got dudes like Avedon and Eisenstaedt who shot for Time their whole careers. Someone said to me once, “The key to success is multiple streams of revenue.” You can’t just do one thing. So, now that I’ve got a book, I’m going to put that in one pile. Next, it’s on to making movies, trying to go from associate producer to executive producer… or something. Honestly, I’m just taking it as it comes.
Big Shots! is available for $34.90 at Gallery & Co. For more about the book, visit instagram.com/bigshotsbook.
Text Odette Yiu & Sam Chua
Images Division & Phillip Leeds