Phillip Leeds on his new book, Big Shots! and the staying power of Polaroids
Mr. Big Shot
Phillip Leeds is the former tour manager of Pharrell, Kelis and N.E.R.D. He debuts Big Shots!, a book of Polaroids featuring personalities in music and fashion
"He was always the guy who would say, 'Let's take a picture'," said Pharrell Williams in the foreword of Phillip Leeds' new book, Big Shots!. A long time coming, it's filled with a collection of almost 15 years worth of Polaroids Leeds attained in his career as a tour and brand manager. Celebrity faces include music moguls A$AP Rocky, Snoop Dogg and Williams himself, while fashion representatives such as Andre Leon Talley and Naomi Campbell make an appearance.
I meet him just minutes before the launch of his book in Singapore. After the book launch here, the 46-year-old Manhattan native will travel in Bangkok and Tokyo next. Before being an author (Big Shots! is his first book), Leeds spent time as a tour manager for heavy metal and punk bands early on his career, before working with the likes of Williams, Kelis and N.E.R.D. Once he grew tired of living out of a suitcase, he setted down to join Williams as brand manager for clothing label the Billionaire Boys Club, moving on to becoming its global brand director. Now, Leeds sits across me at Gallery & Co, with the camera — the Big Shot — separating us. Made in 1971, The Big Shot now travels in Leeds' camera case (a garage sale find), which sports the phrase "Photography is not a crime" on its back. Between recalling his touring dates and occasional bouts of nail-biting, the father-of-one shares his creative process and even lets me handle his beloved toy.
How did you first hear of the Big Shot? People didn't take it as a serious camera. It's a novelty thing and then Andy Warhol got into it. If it wasn't for Andy being into it, I would have never heard of it. I learnt about the Big Shot from a Warhol exhibit in 2004, 'Warhol: Red Books', and they had one of these cameras. I was already into Polaroids but I had never seen one like this before. I was like, 'That camera looks crazy and I must have it.'
Apart from the difference in mediums and formats, how do you think the approach to digital differs from film? With digital, there's no weight except for memory space. But I spent like $4 on this roll of film, you know? There's no reason to put thought into it. It's more mindless, taking pictures.
So how did you start taking pictures of your subjects, and how did your collection of over 600 pictures come together? I wasn't trying to be a photographer. I was just taking pictures for fun. It sort of dictates the format; it's only good for portraits. I was a tour manager at that time, and I travelled with all my other cameras but I didn't travel with this one because it's so bulky. So it just lived at my house and when people would come to my house, I would take their pictures — and if they didn't come to my house, I wouldn't (laughs).
How would you sum up your role as a tour manager? Babysitting and accounting.
When you were taking all those photos, did you ever thought to compile them in a book? I was always doing photography, but just to take pictures and put them in a shoe box, and look at them every once in a while.
After publisher Rizzoli got in touch, how did you compile more photos in the mix? I got a sh*tty plastic photo album, with a fairly impressive body of work that I showed Rizzoli the sample of. Then I got settled on the pressure of making a book. Obviously, a photo of somebody is cool, but celebrities would sell books. I started actively seeking out celebrities that I had access to just to beef up the volume of celebrities. But I wasn't like standing outside a party trying to get somebody's picture, you know, but I was reaching out to my friends who manage artists and publicists whom I have relationships with.
Were your trying to convey a message in the way you laid out the celebrities in this book? Not really. It's hard to say there's a theme, these people I have crossed paths with — there's no rhyme or reason. You can't say it's '90s hip-hop, or fashion or anything. It's like a mish-mosh of everything. Rizzoli ended up editing it. I wasn't really trying to say anything but I tried to pair pictures that played well off each other on a per page basis, or maybe like two of the subjects have a some sort of relationship.
Seeing how involved you're in with the music industry, was there a song that was playing at the back of your head when you were assembling the book? I have music in my head a lot but I don't know if it has a relation to what I'm doing. Pharrell's music is definitely in my head a lot. It's hard to avoid.
What do you like to listen to now? I just listen to reggae, jazz and dancehall. I really love the Childish Gambino album — that was a real surprise to me. I wasn't expecting something like that.
Your father was an art collector and you collect art yourself. What was the last thing you acquired? What are you into? I have no money, and I just see art I want and hope someday I can get it. Sometimes, I buy small things if I can really scrap the money together. I bought a painting last year for about USD$1,100 from Michael Kagan. He did something for Billionaire Boys Club and I met him through Pharrell. But that was like a serious financial strain for a little while. Sometimes, I encourage my dad to buy things I like (laughs).
Are you influenced by him a lot? Very much so. I think my appreciation of photography comes from just growing up around his collection and being surrounded by it — in between my parents and their love of art, and growing up in New York City with so many museums.
So after music and photography, what are you into now? I'm working on a mobile app with Pusha T, the rapper. He and I had a game idea for a really long time, and he's now morphing it into an app. And being a dad. I have a six-year-old boy.
Lastly, how do you make celebrities feel comfortable in front of something as intimidating as a camera? They're used to it. It's people who aren't used to being pictured, like friends. When you point a camera, it makes people get awkward. I just tell people to be themselves and relax, as it's going to take me a minute to set up. I'll tell you when I'm ready and you can get ready and tell me when you're ready. No pressure.