When it comes to New York photographers, there are few around that have achieved both the wide acclaim and cultural breadth of David Perez, a.k.a. Shadi. In the 1980s, the Bronx-born Puerto Rican New Yorker attended the Fashion Institute Of Technology, but quickly discovered that photography would forever be his calling in life and switched fields. Working his way up the industry's totem pole, Shadi eventually scored a gig with The Source magazine, which led him to shooting numerous icons before they hit it big, from the Wu-Tang Clan to Cypress Hill―and directing multiple music videos, which, in turn, helped the budding artist fund his personal work. Simultaneously, Shadi continued to foster friendships with original downtown NYC skate brands (Supreme, Stüssy) and all their followers.
Considering the legendary status of the man's 20-plus-year-long career, we've been itching to sit down and chat with him about his life and work for ages, and, fortunately, a recent record release proved to serve as the perfect catalyst to get such a get-together to happen. Our good friends over at Public Release, a San Francisco-based dance music label, just dropped a new Private Release 12″ featuring Jacques Renault disco edits, and guess what!? Shadi was commissioned to provide work for both sides of the disc! Taking this as a sign from above, we arranged to meet up with him in his Chinatown studio for a solid hour's worth of dialogue about where it all began, what makes him tick, and what is yet to come. Read on for the full scoop and be sure to buy the record over at the Rvng Intl. Web store.
Let's start with the Public Release stuff. How did you originally meet up with Eugene Whang, the label's founder and owner?
Through my Tokyo connections. They all knew Eug, and when he visited New York, his girlfriend introduced me to him and we hit it off immediately. I would send him pictures or he'd look at my blog and comment on my photos, and when it came down to him looking for images for his 12″ series, he already knew a few that he wanted, but also asked for a bit more.
In terms of theme, what was he looking for?
Well, [the b1 track on Jacques Renault's Tuesday EP is called] “Dancing In the Sky” and Eug wanted something that had atmosphere to compliment it. I'd taken all these picture of this guy named Love Me painting, and the “love me” theme paired with the sky seemed to be perfect for the song. Eug had seen [the photo I used for a1―”Young Single and Free”] on the blog. I'd always thought it was a twisted image. I was walking around Tokyo and I saw this guy with this cute little puppy and a pistol―which was a BB gun, but still, I was like, Let me take your picture! Eug picked it out and I was glad he did since it's such a weird picture, especially for Tokyo.
Speaking of Tokyo, you do a lot of work in Japan. I'm curious to find out how that connection arose.
Well, I'm a born and bred Puerto Rican New Yorker―I've lived in downtown for about half of my life―and during my first trip to Japan, I was like, Wow―this place is like New York, but in a different realm where everything's backwards. I met this [Japanese] guy in passing on a trip and he wound up coming to an art show I was doing in New York a little while later. He knew about me mostly from the music videos I was doing at the time and asked if he could put me in a book on self-made men he was working on at the time. That was the beginning of my 10-year [(and counting!)] relationship with Japan. This guy became a good friend of mine, so I'd go to Japan and he'd bring me into his community, and for someone who really didn't know anything about Japan, this made me feel very at home, in good company… like I was taken in by Japanese brothers and sisters. So I started going over there to work―and they'd treat me like a king―and then they'd come over here―and I'd treat them like they were visiting New York and were special. [Because of these reciprocal relationships,] the country became a place that I was going to more than L.A. or Florida to visit my mother. And this became normal.
I don't speak the language and I can't read it, but this became really comforting. I could hear my thoughts.
There's something therapeutic about being surrounded by, like… white noise.
Yeah―you can be in the middle of Shibuya, surrounded by thousands of people, and not get too distracted by overhearing something or seeing a name out of the corner of your eye. It's like you're surrounded by a blur.
What companies have you worked with over there?
I've done stuff with all the major mens magazines and mens brands―like W)Taps, Bedwin, A Bathing Ape, Billionaire Boys Club/Ice Cream, Comme des Garçons, and a bunch of others. I was doing a lot of stuff with Supreme―I had a studio/office in their NYC shop's basement―when I first started working in Japan, and they had just opened Supreme Japan, so I started making ads and editorial for them as well.
You do a lot of stuff that falls loosely under streetwear and skaterwear―what draws you to that style and lifestyle?
I grew up with a lot of those brands emerging… and being tied in and watching where all these people got their start and seeing their employees turn into employees of other companies… that had a big impact on me. Like, I remember James Jebbia, who owns Supreme and part of Stüssy, from back when he worked for the Canadian brand Parachute. I came up with these guys… these guys who founded companies that made it and that everyone worships and copies. It was very natural for me.
A lot of those companies―Supreme being a big one―embody the spirit of a different and seminal New York. Like, you think of Supreme, and if you have any understanding of that brand, the thought evokes images of skater kids and graffiti and the like in NYC in the 80s and 90s. By that same token, I feel like your work embodies that mentality of an older New York that's sort of gone now―
[Starts clicking through images on the computer] That's the RZA.
I was involved in skating and biking and bike messengering back then, and, like, Stüssy was one of the first brands that kids in Washington Square Park in the late-80s started wearing. That was the first brand where people were, like, I want one of those shirts! Everyone wanted one of those shirts! Do you know who Paul Mittleman is?
He was the art director for Stüssy for many years, and when Shawn Stüssy founded Stüssy, Paul was the kid that made sure the pro skaters and the cool kids in New York got the shirts. He was the guy that everyone would suck up to in order to get the shirts. You wanted to be in with that posse, and that's why it's such an iconic 80s brand.
And that trend sort of jump-started a lot of other brands… like A Bathing Ape in Japan. Today, brands like BBC and Ice Cream have taken that mentality one step further and really commoditized and commercialized the whole business. So you're interesting in that you're sort of a common thread for all these companies… you've been with each of them over the course of nearly three decades, from the beginning of it all to today.
And Stüssy was interesting because people knew Shawn was a surfer making clothes for surf kids in Laguna Beach. He had this really chill vibe to him and everyone loved it. And he wasn't some trust fund kid or a rich rapper―he just wanted to make some cool shit. He was inspired by, like, Yohji Yamamoto and CDG, but he just made really simple, cool clothes… and they're still copying those old designs.
Let me see those Wu Tang Clan pictures again. What's the story with those?
These were taken before the first album came out, back when they actually had, like, dirty sneakers and no one knew who the fuck they were. They didn't have an identity yet―they were just Staten Island rappers. I always joke about these photos and say they were taken back when Ol' Dirty Bastard only had one kid [laughs].
And you've always been pretty involved in the hip-hop community…
Yeah… my first job…
Er, wait―these are some photos I took for Russell Karablin, the founder of SSUR.
What happened to SSUR?
He moved to the West Coast. The building his store was in got seized for taxes reasons, which wasn't his fault, but someone else's. He relocated it to Elizabeth Street.
This is a series I did of a Japanese boxer named Kid Nakamura. Undefeated used this photo in their Vegas store.
Oh, this is a photo of Chloë Sevigny from before Kids. Look at how bad her style is! There aren't a lot of pictures of her with long hair out there…
Here's Dash Snow, like, three years ago. Him and his girl, just after they announced that she was pregnant. This is the two of them eating on the beach…
Anyway! How I got involved with hip-hop…
I was a photo assistant and then I eventually became a director's assistant and started working on a lot of rap videos. My first photo shoot was with The Source magazine, which led me to begin taking a lot of photos of rap-related events. I got Cypress Hill's first album before it came out, and during a trip to Paris, I came up with this concept for a video for one of the songs. I didn't have a reel or anything, but I had this concept, which i pitched to the label, a production company, and one of guys' girlfriends. They liked it enough that they skimmed 25% off another video budget for me to work with. After that I did “Jump Around” by House Of Pain… and then one for Beastie Boys and Onyx and Tribe Called Quest… and all of that video stuff allowed me to do more photography work.
The bulk of your work revolves around the individual and portraits―
I don't like doing fashion stories―I like doing people stories. Like, these are some portraits I did of Aaron Bondaroff from aNYthing just goofing around at his studio. He asked me to do portraits of a bunch of up-and-coming artists he was into, so I just went over to their pads and hung out with them to take pictures. There's something nice about saying, Hey, I'm here to hang out with you and document you. When you leave, the person gives you a hug or whatever. I like that way more than having to worry about hair and makeup and all. I like people.
For me, it's all about developing relationships over time. Like, I did a shoot with Pharrell, and at the beginning, he was being like any other difficult rapper. Like, most musicians, they do so many shoots that they just [want to be in and out]. So with him, I was like, Look―can I just do a roll of you being yourself?, and he was really excited about that. He went from business mode to himself in an instant. It's nice to get people to break down that facade.
It's almost as though you're suggesting the camera for you is―
An icebreaker. It's an icebreaker. I mean, a lot of women I've met, it starts out with, Hey―can I take your picture?
It's refreshing to hear you say all of this because I feel like a lot of photographers believe their art to be very opaque and mysterious. They want you to think there's something intimidating about it all.
Well, photography definitely exposes people's vulnerabilities. You know who Bruce Weber is, right? He's one of the few people who has reached this certain pinnacle of success and someone I really respect. So, this Japanese magazine did an interview with him and they asked me to do the photographs. The writer kept telling me Bruce isn't into being photographed, so he asked me to come with him and try my best at convincing him to let me take a few. After listening to his interview, I came up to him and asked to do his portrait, and he was really standoffish. So I dropped some names and talked to him about a bar that he'd go to and the bartender that we mutually knew, and finally he told me I could do a few. I was able to get him to pose, one-on-one, and it was incredible to see him turn into this little boy… this nervous person. That's something I look for―a person who doesn't like to be or hasn't been photographed and having them take their guard down.
When did it hit you that you wanted photography to be your career?
When I was [enrolled] at the Fashion Institute of Technology. A girl I knew from the school asked to take my portrait and she had me running around, doing all this stuff… and I loved the results. I felt like I could do it too. After that, I started pursuing photography seriously.
Why did you go to FIT then?
Growing up in the Bronx, everyone liked to have their pants tailored. In, like, 1984, 1985, everyone would tailor their pants really tight and all my friends would pay a lot of money to have [such alterations done]. My mother taught me how to sew, so I was altering my friends' clothes and my clothes, and I was like, Fuck―I know how to sew. Why don't I [go to FIT]? But, I mean… I was young and I didn't really know what I wanted. Photography kept scratching at me…
What cameras do you use?
I mainly use a Leica for my personal photography. If I shoot digital, I'll take 200 pictures in no time at all, and 90% will be shit. When I shoot with my Leica, out of 35, 36 photos, I probably like 34, 35.
That's one of the weird things about digital photography. One of the bummers. People place no value on the process of applying an image to some medium. Like, you see girls running around with little digital cameras, shooting whatever falls in front of their face. What's compelling about this to me is that you look back on, like, your parents' photographs and you realize people actually cared about composition and lighting, even if they weren't trained.
It's a disposable medium now.
Recently, I worked with this Japanese company called Bedwin. They called me up and told me they wanted to do a commercial that “looks like film.” Everyone wants stuff to “look like film.” I got kind of frustrated and was like, Look―if you want something to look like film, how about we shoot something on film!? Why don't we take my Bolex and shoot something on film!? It will look like film!
So instead of shooting, like, five hours of footage for a 30-second thing, I took five three-minute-long rolls of 16 mm and it wound up not costing as much as I thought it was going to. I didn't shoot a lot―I only had five rolls!―which meant that when I pulled that trigger, I had to be extra certain the lighting was right and everything was in focus and the exposure was set. Same with the Leica―it takes, like, five seconds to shoot one shot, whereas with a [point-and-shoot], it's just like pow! Anyway, the thing for Bedwin looked gorgeous.