Phillip Leeds is a native New Yorker, libra, southpaw and a dad.
Your career has been defined by reinvention, as you have continually found ways to create crossover in music, fashion, lifestyle, and now photography with your portrait book with Rizzoli. What is the fundamental thread between your projects?
Throughout my life, I have been exposed to a lot of amazing subcultures. It’s what I consider a kaleidoscope of influences that myself and my co-workers share.
I grew up in New York in the 1970s and was a teenager here in the 80s. My father, in addition to being a major art collector, was in the music business and took me to shows when I was a kid. He managed Blondie, so my first show/backstage memory was when they opened up for Iggy Pop at the Palladium back when it was a concert venue. As soon as I was old enough, I started going to CBGBs and got into the NYC hardcore scene. It was the wild west in NYC at the time, so from a very young age, I could easily go out to clubs, drink, stay out all night and get into all sorts of interesting and eye-opening experiences. I was also getting into graffiti (I was a toy) but was able to meet other writers at CBGBs and by hanging out in Central Park and Washington Square Park. Then I discovered hip-hop and that really became a major influence in my world.
I began expanding my horizons after high school, which is when I moved out of NYC – first to Boston and then San Francisco for college. After college I worked at Def Jam, which was incredible in terms of gaining experience and making connections that shaped my whole career. Afterwards, I had the amazing opportunity to travel the world as a tour manager. I started with punk and heavy metal bands and later for Kelis, N.E.R.D, and Pharrell.
Through NYC, music, and graffiti, I met a lot of the people who have continued to be the amazing creative forces who taught and influenced my life.
Can you tell us more about what to expect from your portrait series?
My portrait series is just an amazing, completely unplanned, organic opportunity that I am truly fortunate to stumble into. I have always been into photography, but for whatever reason, it was a hobby and not something I was ever trying to pursue as a profession. I have a bunch of cameras – a Twin Lens Reflex, a Polaroid SX-70, and a bunch of Polaroid land cameras. I would travel with them and shoot for my own personal enjoyment. I loved the instant gratification of the polaroids and the fact that the photograph would be 1-of-1.
In 2004, I went to an opening for Steidl/Edition 7L‘s release of Warhol: Red Books, which was an exhibit of Andy Warhol’s Polaroid portraits in conjunction with the release of the set of books. At the end of the exhibition was Andy’s camera, a Polaroid Big Shot, which is one of the more unusual looking cameras you will ever see. I went home, hopped on eBay bought one, and I started shooting friends who would come to my house.
In the mid-2000s, I started working for Billionaire Boys Club and I kept the Big Shot at the showroom and started taking photos of all the celebrity visitors. I shot Snoop Dogg, Chris Brown, Andre Leon Talley, Tyler the Creator, and DMC (from Run DMC) there. Again, I was just doing this for me, I had zero aspirations for the photos beyond having them for myself. Snoop was actually the first person to ask why I didn’t have a book deal, to which I replied that he should be my book agent. Several years later in 2013, through Mark McNairy, I met Ian Luna from Rizzoli and we started talking about doing something and that is when I really starting thinking about the photos as more than just something for me. At that point I started being more proactive and would take my camera to the subjects instead of only shooting who came to my office.
The aesthetic that Billionaire Boys Club created really defined the era of streetwear fashion. What were your inspirations during that time?
Most of that aesthetic really stemmed from minds of Pharrell, Nigo, and SK8THG. We were inspired by vintage Americana, outer space, and cartoons. Every idea I had, I passed to SK8THG, who turned it into the magic.
You have a collection that includes pieces from Barry McGee, KAWS, and Jeff Koons. What was the first piece?
Wow, that’s tough. I guess it would be pieces my father gave me as a teenager, which were photographs by Andre Kertesz and O. Winston Link, as well as a Peter Max print of Mick Jagger. Subsequently, I was lucky enough to write graffiti with Barry McGee, KAWS, and ESPO. I ended up acquiring pieces of theirs just from being around them.
The largest work I have is actually a piece of Barry’s that I found. He had painted a huge blood red mural on the plywood construction wall for the site where Yerba Buena Center of the Arts was being built in San Francisco. When the construction finished, all of the panels from the mural were put in the trash. We salvaged a few of them and I somehow managed to get them from San Francisco to NYC.
In addition to your photography book, you’re also now a Partner at Agency for Higher. Can you elaborate on your role there?
I was at Billionaire Boys Club for a long time and felt like I wanted to work on something where I had ownership. For some time, I had followed the rise of medical marijuana and the debate around it. I have been a cannabis enthusiast since I was 13, and have always been pro-legalization. I read an article in Forbes about the type of businesses that would grow and benefit around the emerging cannabis industry and the number one industry was marketing and branding. Then a light bulb went off in my head. I realized I was built for this. It was my Silicon Valley! So, I set my course towards making it happen. I started talking to some peers in the marketing world and then ran into my long time friend “Hawaii” Mike Salman. We had similar interests and goals so we decided to partner up and start Agency For Higher.
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