Back to Writing / 10-05-2004

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The girls in David Perry's "Truckers Lounge" are lazing in motel rooms while chatting on the phone, cleaning small dirty kitchens, rolling around in old cars, stretching on dark, thick rugs and making their sexy little ways in what feels like a filthy world. They hold flasks, guns, knives and lollipops in their tattooed hands. They're hot and looking for trouble.

Perry has published several books, and his work has shown in the San Diego Museum of Art, The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and many galleries from Tokyo to Berlin to Berkeley. He took some away from his Hot Rods and Pin-Ups to speak with us about his work.

Sez G: How did you originally get into photography?

David Perry: After failing to become a rock star by the age of 19, I decided photography would satisfy my need for attention, travel, a glamorous lifestyle and self employment.

I had seen quite of bit of trippy album art in the 1970s, so photography seemed cool. After goofing around with an intro photography class at Junior College, I set out to build a portfolio, and to be accepted at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I felt to enter into a super-competitive field, I needed the best education I could find.

Sez G: You're well known for your moody pin-up work. What does "pin-up" mean to you?

David Perry: To me, a pin-up should have sheen and glamour that transcends the mere rendering of that woman. She must be dangerous and alluring. She is like a delicious candy in a fancy wrapper, tempting you to enter her world with her eyes, her mouth, her body, and her expression. She is a Siren on the rocks of a treacherous and beautiful shore.

Sez G: Looking at your work is like traveling through time. Which decade do you think held the sexiest looking women, the 50's, the 30's…?

David Perry: I would say the 1900s-1930s. Look at the photos of the Ziegfeld girls by Alfred Cheney Johnston. They had a natural grace and beauty that was timeless. It was before artificial lighting, hairspray and cotton candy bouffants of the 1950s.

Sez G: You're equally well known for your photographs of Hot Rods. Where does your love of cars and their aesthetic come from?

David Perry: Growing up in California, I was exposed to hot rods at an early age. I had played with Hot Wheels® as a child and built Revell® models of famous cars as well. I grew up seeing incredible vehicles cruising the streets, and it became street theater. When photographing my first book, Hot Rod (Chronicle Books, 1997), I became enchanted with the steamlined shapes of Art-Deco era race cars at El Mirage dry lakes and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Sez G: So….is a pin-up girl laying in a hot rod your ultimate subject?

David Perry: I think nudes are the greatest challenge for an artist to pull off without looking like a jack-ass.

Sez G: Clearly you worked through your jack-ass phase long ago! You've lived in Denver, LA and SF. How have these cities affected your creativity?

David Perry: When I was ten years old and living in Denver, my uncle gave me a 8mm brownie movie camera He showed me how to make stop action animation and how to super-impose by rewinding the film while it's still in the camera. I made a flying saucer movie for my 6th grade science class. The teacher was skeptical about the "science" aspect of it, but my classmates were quite impressed.

My family moved to L.A. shortly afterwards. By the time I finished art school, the L.A. market, for me, was about photographing aspiring actors & models, B-movie starlettes & rock musicians. I was just a vendor for the bigger industries-- motion pictures and the music biz. I found this frustrating, creatively. There was no need for creative photography like the record jackets I had loved in the 1970s.

I eventually moved to San Francisco in 1995, and this really opened things up for me. I found a publisher, Chronicle Books, who published my first 2 books, and the dot com boom was in full swing. Art directors embraced edgy, creative work.

That all disappeared after 9/11. The aesthetic returned to ultra-conservative imagery: polo-shirt-wearing, golf-playing, family value banality.

Sez G: A lot of your work captures the not-so-glamorous, human side of sexuality- from strip joints to perspiration to dusty roads to prostitution. Why?

David Perry: The two projects your referring to, Bordertown (Chronicle books, 1998), a book I made with writer Barry Gifford, and Strip Joint-- Fargo, North Dakota were personal projects. I approached both subjects in a psuedo-documentary style.

While making Bordertown, I set out to give it the look and feel of a dream/nightmare. There's not much to glamorize at a Mexican bordertown. I'd say it's more romanticized then glamorized. Also, I wanted to photograph putas with the same approach turn-of- the-century photographer E.J. Bellocq used to photograph the prostitutes of Storyville, in New Orleans. Immediate and raw. Sexuality does not have to be glamorous to be sensual or evocative.

Sez G: Tell me about the creative process and your collaboration and with Barry Gifford on Bordertown. Did you go into the road trip planning on doing the book?

David Perry: After Hot Rod, Barry pitched the idea to Chronicle of him & I traveling to the various bordertowns along the Mexican-American border, and creating a book of vignettes, ephemera, fiction and photos. The border is a no-man's land. It is a place of transition for many people. We were 2 gringos reporting back whatever we found on our trip. We had no real agenda. We weren't interested in immigration issues or politics, just the day to day life as we found it.

When I returned home with my film, I listened to Tom Waits' album Bone Machine to get me in a proper state-of-mind while printing the images.

Sez G: Woah, that Tom Waits really does fit with those images! What are you working on now?

David Perry: My next book is a collection of Hot Rod Pin-Ups due out in March of 2005 on Motorbooks International.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, David! To see more of David Perry's work, go to

David Perry - by Sez G.