David Perry’s Hot Rod Photography

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On hot rods, Bordertown and finding new inspiration.

Interview: Mike Blanchard

Arts-y | David Perry sits in the kitchen of his house in Benicia and looks off into the distance remembering El Mirage. “We used to take models out there; it was beautiful. I didn’t even know they raced there.”

As we talk, his eyes flash and his face is animated like an actor’s. He uses his hands to help illustrate his ideas and waves his arms for emphasis. But it is chiefly the eyes that you notice. They are active and alive. Watching, measuring what is going on around him. He has a slight stutter that does not impede his communication in any way. It’s more a charming bit of personality.

He is excited about scoring an original Ibanez Korina Explorer just like the guitar Eddie Van Halen played early on. Perry's red Marshall amp sits in the living room. Guitars and rock ‘n’ roll are closely tied to photography for Perry. Music was what propelled him into the world of hot rod photography.

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Years ago, Perry was taking blues guitar lessons from a cat in L.A. and found some hot rod magazines lying around the guy’s pad. He asked, “What’s up with these?” The guy said, “You know … rock ‘n’ roll, hot rods, Jeff Beck …” and it all came back to Perry. How his dad used to take him out to Lions Drag Strip to see the racing: the sounds, the visuals, the cars.

Perry got a degree from the Art Center School of Design, and after a lot of hard work there was a very solid career in photography. Album covers, fashion, editorial work, advertising, museum shows: Perry has done it all. There is a massive corporate client list to boot. He is proud of his books, Hot Rod, Bordertown, Hot Rod Pinups volumes 1 and 2, Billy F Gibbons, Rock + Roll Gearhead, Hot Rod Kings and Erotic Photography Now.

One of my heroes is Danny Lyon, who also did Mexico.

But all that is done now. He still has all the photos and his cameras. When asked if there is anything that excites him, a project he would like to do, he replies, “Not really. I’ve done it.” He allows that maybe he will find something down the road that will spark his curiosity.

At the moment the thing that he is really into is his boat. A 25-foot vintage sailing boat made out of rare teak wood by the Cheoy Lee boatyards. It is a beauty and it figures. There are a lot of parallels between beautiful women, beautiful cars and boats. And, as Perry says, “We’re trying to be green.”

And yet down in the basement is that archive. Perry knows the photos like they are old friends. Neatly archived and stacked, boxes of negatives and prints fill the shelves. His grandfather’s Contax rangefinder sits on top of some prints.

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Rust: You have been kind of out of the loop. What have you been working on?
What have I been working on? Ha! Still in photography. Still swinging a camera. Doing a lot of video. Still in the business, sort of, but not really working in the commercial realm. I don’t really get calls for assignments anymore. It just kind of faded away about 10, 15 years ago.

Rust: How did your book Bordertown come about?
Perry: A friend was publishing a story by Barry Gifford (Sailor & Lula, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) — a prequel to Sailor & Lula, and needed to illustrate it.

I didn’t know his work first hand but I knew of him. I said, ‘Yeah, yeah; I’ll do it for free but I want to meet him.’ Because I was looking for a writer for this book. I knew I had some photos I was working on since ’91; this was like ’95, it was about a five-year project. I always knew I needed some major writer to kinda help. I handed in some pictures. I actually photographed some friends in my Buick to illustrate this story.

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My friend says, ‘OK; let’s go see if Barry is home.’ He was living in Berkeley … but he had a studio over Black Snake Books — Black-something books in Oakland, famous beat writer place — now it’s Berkeley Mills. Barry liked the stuff. He knows photography a bit. He’s friends with Rene, some famous Magnum guy, Andre Rene, some famous guy. He liked the stuff. He says, ‘Yeah, it looks like early Brassai.’ He had a couple references. He goes, ‘I met this woman at a party Saturday who is the photo editor at Chronicle Books. She loves my work. Go see her; tell her I’ll write you something.’

So I’m like, ‘Uh, OK. So I met with Caroline Herter. She’s like, ‘How do you know Barry?' I said, ‘Oh, we’re old friends.’ So she’s looking at my work. She’s a New Yorker. She’s like, ‘Oh, Richard Misrach country.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure; whatever works for you.’

So he had already written something; it had nothing to do with hot rods; what am I going to say to Barry Gifford? There was a car mentioned in there a couple times. But I liked it; it was weird enough. I got the deal. I paid him his fee, which was basically anything I made on the deal.

And then Barry suggested Bordertown. ‘Hey, why don’t we do a trip?’ ‘Where do I want to go and how do I get someone to pay for it?’ is Barry’s style. So he wanted to hit the borders again. I go, ‘Yeah, I’d love to do that.’ So I figured out we’re going to do a trip, him and I down to the border; we’ll come back with whatever we get and you’ll make a book out of it.

For me it was the challenge of, ‘I made this book in five years; I have to make this one in five weeks.’ I got to get everything on the fly. There is no setup. I like that challenge. And I also wanted to get away from being the hot rod guy.

One of my heroes is Danny Lyon, who also did Mexico. He did his bike thing and he also did Mexico. So it wasn’t a big stretch. I knew border culture from being in L.A. and SoCal. We went to Tijuana, Baja; you know, border towns are all the same. I loved it. Loved the food; loved the culture.


But I knew I didn’t want to do color ’cause I thought, ‘It’s too colorful here.’ At the time I was listening to Tom Waits’ ‘Bone Machine’ … I want this under the pier, like how the book looks. I diffused it through rice paper, kinda made it a little nightmare-dreamy-ish, just a little, a little bit. And then Martin Venesky clubbed it with his design.

Rust: A David Carson-esque kind of thing. Deconstructed.
When I met him the first time they said. ‘Here’s your designer.’ I said, ‘As long as it doesn’t look like David Carson.’ Ha ha! Which it totally does. But in its own ... Martin’s different. I had worked with him (Carson) on RayGun. I had a picture of Mathew Sweet driving his hot rod — his Charger or whatever it was, black and white, gritty — he cut the picture in half, run the right half, with just his hands on the wheel on one page. I’m like, ‘What?’

David Perry aboard his vintage sailboat. (Mike Blanchard photo)

David Perry aboard his vintage sailboat. (Mike Blanchard photo)

Rust: He must have liked your work. Carson wouldn’t have done that with just anyone.
Ha! Yeah. Thanks a lot; he really liked it. But you had to work with RayGun ’cause they were the shit. So Martin was kinda that school: He was Cranbrooke, all that. He did stutter type. The original layout for Hot Rod, Chronicle couldn’t even get into that. So he brought it back a bit.

He took all my grandpa’s hot rod drawings, which are in the book, clip art, I gave him a few Hop Ups and Hot Rods — ‘Here, here’s the aesthetic.’ He found little things like the devil guy. Took out the text and just left the box. Stars: He liked the stars. Just a row of stars that he’d use. Or the Genii pointing. Disassociated from the hot rod. But I wanted that, something fresh. ‘Let’s smack this thing on the side of the head, throw a poet at the beginning, no captions, black and white; let’s piss everybody off!!’

There it is. It was almost like, ‘God, this is so easy. ... All the racers were like, ‘Oh, you want the beauty shot?’ ‘No, I want the grit, the stickers on the toolboxes.’

Rust: I always thought it would be cool to do a book of toolboxes. A mechanic probably spends more time with that box than he does with his wife.
I got that and I got their toilets.

Keep up with David:

s:  davidperrystudio.com

(Editor’s note: You can check out David Perry’s work at the Fresh Rust Photo Show from September 12 – October 31, Russ Room, 730 K Street, Sacramento, CA.)