“I find my influence comes more from a state of mind fueled by the power of rock and roll, the blues and the mystery and layers of Miles Davis’ music. The photos that might make me a bit nervous and uncomfortable to shoot are often my best.” – Leland Bobbé
Award-winning photographer, Leland Bobbé, tells AXS that life didn’t really begin for him until the late 1960’s, when he left his childhood home of Long Island to attend an experimental college in Maine. “That’s where I first met many creative people and that really opened me up,” he explains. “It was also what was going on during that time that shaped me into the person I am today. Rock ’n’ roll, free love, hippies, rebellion and all that good stuff.”
By the 1970’s, Bobbé had landed in the gritty and vibrant New York City music scene as a full-time drummer with the band, City Lights. The group was a renowned fixture in the downtown scene, playing regularly at the infamous CBGB and became the first band from the club to get a record deal. “We released an album with Sire Records, went on tour and things were looking really good for us,” Bobbé says. “Then six months later, Sire signed The Ramones and that was pretty much the end of us,” he laughs.
While photography had just been a hobby for him at the time, Bobbé’s CBGB days had put him at the epicenter of an emerging punk rock/new wave movement that he instinctively captured on his camera, documenting some of music’s most legendary icons in the making.
It was also outside of the club where Bobbé began finding his true voice as a photographer. With an eye for composition and a fascination with the city’s underbelly, he spent much of his spare time walking the Bowery and Times Square capturing gritty images of the sex shops, prostitutes and slices of street life.
“NYC is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. I’ve been saying for years that every time I go outside I’m liable to see something unique that captures my attention. Everything here is so accessible. The energy, the mix of people…as a photographer who is fascinated by people I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Over the next thirty years Bobbé developed his signature style in all areas of fashion, beauty, portraits, commercial and fine art photography to become one of the most celebrated American photographers of today. His work has been shown in galleries around the world, honored with countless awards and used in major campaigns with clients such as American Express, Visa, Hyatt, Toshiba and many others. But as with his early 1970’s NYC series, the true beauty of Bobbé’s work is his ability to capture the cracks in the city’s facades and in a way that compels us to explore the inner workings of his subjects.
For instance, the unflinching images in his Women of Fifth Avenue series shows us unfiltered reality of age and lost beauty masked in the opulent culture of cosmetic surgery. “I was inspired to do this series after seeing some black and white photos by Harry Callahan of well dressed women with tight faces of on the streets of Chicago,” Bobbé explains. “I wanted to do an updated take on this, in color, with the very wealthy women who shop and lunch along Fifth Avenue between 50th and 60th Street. I also thought shooting in direct sunlight would add to the drama and I used a long lens and tried to melt into the crowd so the subjects didn’t know they were being shot. There is something very exciting about that to me.”
His award winning portrait series, Neo-Burlesque, features a different NYC subculture of Neo-Burlesque performers in their bizarre costumes and was chosen for a 3-month exhibit at The Museum of Sex in NYC. Then Bobbé’s next daring series, Half-Drag, took the world stage for it’s provocative take on the timely topic of gender identity. The images are of real life drag queens portraying gender fluidity with half male and half female faces. In addition to winning the Best of ASMP award, Half-Drag went viral and was featured on international media outlets such as Huffington Post, The Sundance Channel, ABC News, MSN, Vogue Italia, Refinery 29 and many others.
“I also received many personal emails from people struggling with their gender identity who told me they gained so much strength from these images,” Bobbé adds. “Hearing from people directly and reading about people like this was honestly the most gratifying part of the project for me.”
Aside from the accolades, Bobbé says it’s really the personal projects that have kept him motivated throughout his long career because they allow him to continue expressing his true voice as an artist. In addition to recent projects such as Underground NYC and New York City Wall Art inspired by his first love of street photography, Bobbé also found a way to connect his past as a musician and his present as a photographer using his early style of black and white photography. Musicians 50+ in black and white is a portrait series devoted to musicians around his age who still play and embody the true meaning of rock ’n’ roll.
“I find that older people’s faces have much more character than younger people’s do. They have lived and it shows,” Bobbé says. “All of my images reflect who I am as a person in some way. I’m still fueled by that state of mind created by listening to certain types of music."
If you’re in New York City, works from Leland Bobbé’s Half-Drag series and New York City Wall Art series are currently showing at POP International Galleries on The Bowery.
Eighteen original photographs from Bobbé’s iconic 1970’s NYC series are also part of the permanent collection at The Museum of the City of New York.
You can also follow the artist on Instagram.