Unearthing Ysa Pérez: Evolving Through a Decade of Photos

Ysa Pérez first jumped on my radar in 2012. Instagram had only recently emerged as a photo-sharing platform, and served as an alternative channel for traditional photographers to share their work. Ysa’s photos instantly captivated me. Her images, all intimate and visceral, featured artists who would soon become industry titans. I learned to count on her photos as predictors of fame and success: A$ap Rocky, Diplo, Chief Keef, Solange, Kilo Kish, Danny Brown, Skrillex, and others. Ysa, a young Puerto Rican photo-freelancer from Rochester, NY, showcased future stars before any of us (including some influential publications). She was ahead of the game, whether she knew it or not.

Over the years, she let her life and art unfold through photos; her work told the story of artists and music evolving in unison. Ysa has a way with her subjects. She makes them feel calm and at ease, resulting in candid shots full of vitality and detail. She immortalizes human moments that would otherwise go unnoticed: a streak of light on a young man’s face, a tender lovers’ embrace, the last few drags from a dwindling cigarette, sunlit friendships, nights out, and days spent cuddled in.

Ysa’s subjects are drawn to her. We, the viewers, are drawn to her subjects in return. She binds us together and removes the invisible boundaries of time and space. Through her, we’re all transported to the next show, covert party, or cross-cultural adventure. Maybe that’s why her work feels so honest. She prioritizes accessibility and fun with her subjects before anything else. Only then, and ever so subtly, will she press the shutter down and capture “that” moment ― always candid, nontraditional, and loose.

In a time of saturated imagery and fleeting Instagram fame, we underestimate the power taste-makers like Ysa have to mold our perceptions of the artists we love. We forget that certain photos can launch a career by grabbing our notice and inviting us in. Ysa’s photos do that and more. Her images bring us closer to our idols and unveil the humbling truth: artists are just like any of us, on any given day.

I could go on and on about how lovely Ysa is, and how fortunate I was to explore her deep archive of photos. But I’ll let her unfold her own story…

How did you first get started with photography?

I was always artistic as a kid, which came from my mother, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school. While everyone was applying for the natural next step–college– I was wondering, “what am I good at?”. I was always great on computers and remember spending a lot of time on my mom’s first Mac where I’d sit and play around with Photoshop 7 all day. I took a basic 10th grade photography class for a semester where I took an emotional black & white picture of railroad tracks (of course). I recall the teacher saying it was good, but I didn’t have some “calling”, really. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years later that I decided to focus on photography.

Growing up, my family’s financial situation was never great, so I chose a state school, because it was the most cost effective way to at least get my foundation courses done. I initially attended University at Buffalo as an undecided major, and took generic courses without really feeling passionate about any of them.

During my freshman year, some RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) students asked me to model for their project. My boyfriend at the time was hyping how good RIT photo students were, so I thought ‘yeah sure, I’ll do it’. When I was sitting in their studio observing the facilities and equipment at their disposal, I asked them what their major was and found out it was Advertising Photography. I was in such awe of the resources that RIT offered: a hallway of 30+ individual studios, darkrooms, and being able to rent professional high-end gear. Although it’s changed now that film is not integral to the curriculum, at the time I’d never experienced an environment like that. I decided to transfer into the program knowing nothing technical whatsoever. I couldn’t even tell you the difference between a 16-35 vs. a 24-70 lens. I legitimately started from the ground up. I’ll never forget my first day of school as a confused transfer student when my instructor pulled out a 4×5 camera and asked everybody to set it up. I knew then I was in for a ride.

It took a year or two of really shit experimenting with Macro lenses, stoned at my friends’ dorms, playing around with Fish Eye lenses (why?) and uploading self portraits to Flickr before I started to find my own voice with photography.

“I HAD A SHITTY DIGITAL CAMERA, A CANON 30D TO BE EXACT, BUT THE DRIVE TO GET OUT OF MY CITY OF ROCHESTER KEPT ME GOING”

Around that time too, I started traveling to NYC by bus and train and began to develop my relationship with the city. Back then, I was immersed in nightlife photography, which was a pretty big phenomenon at the time. I was the girl backstage waiting for any opportunity to bust out my Hasselblad in the club. I had a bit of a double life: My parents would drop me off at the sketchy bus station downtown, I’d take the midnight 7 hour bus to NYC, party for a weekend and come back scanning film of celebrities like Moby. No one really understood what I was trying to do. I mean, I didn’t even understand. I just accepted a photo request from anyone relatively famous for practice and because I knew that their exposure would give me exposure.

I’ve always been a bit of a black sheep. I didn’t fit into the “art school” vibe, especially for my major, which was heavily focused on studio lighting and the commercial aspects of photography. I had a shitty digital camera, a Canon 30D to be exact, but the drive to get out of my city of Rochester kept me going.

During my 3rd year of college, I took a quarter off to intern at Nylon Magazine, which gave me the opportunity to shoot tiny things for the mag, and learn a bit about how small publications with a limited budget run. I came back to Rochester knowing more than ever, so I finished my credits, didn’t even go to my graduation, and quickly moved back to NYC in 2010.

Soon after I moved back to NYC I saw a job posting for a GQ internship. Honestly, for ego’s sake, I applied to see if my minimal experience at Nylon and my portfolio would get me into the door. It did! Initially they were pretty confused as to why I even wanted to intern for them. They were a completely different machine from Nylon, who didn’t really need interns like smaller places did. I was so enamored with the photographs on the wall, the big “GQ” logo on the 9th floor, and I knew I’d soak in what everyone around me had to offer. I ended up getting hired a few months later, and it’s the only “real” job I’ve had since quitting to be a full-time freelancer. I credit everything I know about the industry to the year-and-a -half I worked at GQ. That’s where I saw what a $500,000 budget could produce, how photo editors chose photographers for assignments, and how the hierarchy within magazines worked. It was really the “Devil Wears Prada” time of my life!

I’ve always thought that photographers were born with an “eye” for taking pictures. When did you realize that you were naturally inclined at taking photos?

I always knew I had good taste, which is something I personally feel can’t be taught, but what I did have to learn and am thankful for are the origins of photography. Being at school and developing my own black and white film, analog color, experimenting with medium format and large, digital, all the troubleshooting was integral to finding my style.

These days there’s a bunch of self taught photographers on Instagram, but I remain thankful for my education because even though 2009 wasn’t that long ago, it wasn’t what it is now. When I was coming up, photography was still a craft you dedicated long hours to. I’m actually very lucky that my class was one of the last to leave with the knowledge of analog photography.

You were definitely ahead of your time when you were on the come up. You were photographing people that were about to blow up during a time when the internet didn’t have the power it has today.

That’s a nice way of putting it, thank you. Early on I seemed to merge my love of music and photography by hitting up artists that I felt would indeed “blow up”. Again, I always knew their exposure would lead to someone else discovering my work.

2011-2012 were great photo years for me. I was shooting editorial when people still paid for you to shoot film. I shot Chief Keef for XXL, Violent J of Insane Clown Posse for Spin, A$ap Rocky for myself, which other magazines then bought, Cassie and Julian Casablancas for Nylon — all on film. I was also living in the “Blog House era” when DJs weren’t household names yet. I’d pitch people like A-Trak and Diplo to GQ, but they weren’t interested at the time. Forward to a few years later and they are on covers everywhere. I’ve always been a tastemaker, I can say that 100% now.

What drew you into the music world?

I’ve always been into music more than the average person. I’ve been downloading music since I was a kid, and have been part of the culture in someway. When I started going to NYC back in 07’, it was literally to take pictures at parties and be backstage at Justice DJ sets at Webster Hall. It went hand in hand with being in my 20s. I wanted to be out and about in the scene I had just discovered. I loved the excitement of it all (of course I did, I’m from suburbs), and it only made sense to photograph what I was living at the time. It was my strong interest in music that lead me to marry the two. It made sense. It was natural.

It’s always been pretty obvious to me that you have a unique style separate from other photographers. How would you define your style?

Ay thank you. I stuck with doing my own thing because I always believed the work would speak for itself and someone would notice what I was about. I credit my style to my early allegiance to film. Even though I’ve now had to switch over to digital for commercial work, my post-production still comes from having worked in the dark room. When I’m color balancing in Lightroom, my skill comes from having done it with my bare hands. My analog understanding translates to the digital darkroom.

As far as my style goes, I try to capture things as they already are. I don’t usually meddle with anything; it’s purely candid. If it’s a job that requires some strong portraiture, then I will direct and say ‘move this a little over here and keep eyes open’, or sometimes I’ll even demonstrate the pose I want. But it’s still about capturing an authentic moment. I try to be like a fly on the wall without people noticing. I’m in and out. I know when it’s time to press down on the shutter and when the moment is gone and there’s no more photographs to take. I don’t overkill. I try to remain efficient, which again, comes from years of shooting medium format (10 frames per roll).

I can’t imagine telling someone famous what to do, like a Debbie Harry or Chief Keef…

Well luckily I smoke weed…

Well there’s an icebreaker…

Not with Debbie of course! I was so nervous to be in front of her and her 5 PR chicks on their phone telling me I only had ten minutes that I could barely load my 120 film in. Being in the presence of a female gangster like that is COMPLETELY different than hanging with some 19-year old producer that Pitchfork is writing about.

In the Chief Keef instance, I got sent by XXL to his hotel room in Times Square and had to wait it out. You know what rap time means: you basically can’t demand shit and just have to feel the vibe out. There were like 12 dudes in a tiny room rolling blunts, and even though I’d been in similar situations before, it was still intimidating. However, you have to find some relatability. In cases like this, I have music knowledge in my arsenal. I’ll ask how their show was (if they had one), what music they’re currently working on, and really just kick it. Anything that’ll allow the subjects to open up and talk about themselves so that they can start to feel less stiff. Being comfortable with me is the most important thing, otherwise you’ll be able to tell through the work.

Every situation is different. It’s truly about having confidence and knowing your worth. The more jobs you acquire, the more experience you’ll have under your belt, which will strengthen your own credibility.

What made you stick to film?

It’s kind of inexplicable, but film has this romantic and unique quality. Look at your parent’s old photos, printed on Kodak paper, you’ll see that there’s something so beautiful about them. Digital is so instantaneous that we get sick of it quicker. I also enjoy the process more, between me and the subject, when it feels like a traditional portraiture. With film each shot counts; digital users tend to shoot aimlessly. With film, something remains tangible, frozen in time in my archives. Like fuck, I have a Debbie Harry in 120 negatives, that shit is rare!

What are some positives about being a woman photographer? On the other hand, what are some struggles that you’ve had to face in this otherwise male dominated industry?

The positives and negatives are almost the same. I’ve always been a people-person and legitimately love getting to know someone when I’m working. My over friendliness has unfortunately, in the past, been perceived by men as a romantic interest when in fact I’m just there to work. I’m continuously learning how to better set boundaries so as not to be misunderstood. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shot someone in the day and later that night I’ve received a text saying, “come thru to the studio”.

Being a woman, I know what angles are most flattering on women and how to best photograph them. Guys can sometimes forget these subtle nuances that can make all the difference in a photo. Like, damn dude, don’t be shooting me from down below up at my neck and getting all my lines in! Some of the most well known photographers are men, but don’t underestimate a female photographer. Take Peggy Sirota, Paolo Kudacki, Amanda Marsalis, and Elizabeth Weinberg for instance. Those are Gs who have paved their own way, as well as for us and the next generation.

I noticed you took a hiatus from social media or perhaps even taking photos. What was it like to go back into a creative world?

Oh yeah I fell off for a minute. I was intending to live in another country, and after 2 years of putting energy into that, it simply didn’t work out and I had to start from what seemed like square one. I was in a deep hole and had to dig myself out of it. It was a very painful lesson that showed me that shit sometimes happens and things don’t pan out they way you thought they would.

I had to pause and reevaluate everything. Like, ‘wait, I’m not going to be married and living in England like I’ve been thinking I would be for the last two years? Oh shit, I’m back in ROCHESTER, the very place I’ve wanted to get out of since Day 1?’ My website took a toll and basically remained frozen during a time when I was taking my best photos. Everything was a reminder of how long I had been running and trying to escape by staying constantly simulated. I was completely lost. I needed to understand who I was now that all the things tied to England didn’t exist anymore. I had to find myself, which is a journey that a lot of people avoid. It was the scariest time of my life, but goddamn did it make me stronger, even though at that time it absolutely didn’t feel like it.

The greatest thing about rising from the ashes is being able to reinvent yourself. I decided to head west to LA and start shooting again. It was refreshing because it was a completely different atmosphere that allowed me to find new inspirations, reflect on the past turbulent years, and find new strengths.

You let me go through your entire archive of photos for this Feature, which was incredible, thank you! I really felt like I was reliving your life of the past few years. What’s it like to look back on all these pictures?

Honestly? I feel proud. I’m like, ‘what a fucking life I’ve lived and look at all the shit I’ve seen’. I feel super fortunate to have immersed myself in different subcultures and photographed all sorts of assignments, all based on people trusting my eye. I think of 19- year old me hustling at the mall. If you had told me then all that would happen in the following years, I swear I wouldn’t have believed you. People from my town stay in my town and never leave; I took a risk instead. What all these photographs mean is that it was all worth it.

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Feature Photo by Devon Endsley

Maria J. Livingstone

A sensitive lady thug living in SF with a knack for crying.