On a summer evening in an electric-red, chili-spiced, East Village vegan restaurant known for its combination of bassy bowls of mapo tofu and 808-enthused hip-hop tracks, a man walks in with silver-framed, '90s slated, cat-eye sunglasses on. It's AP the Angel.
Born Anthony Peterson in St. Louis, Missouri, he's known colloquially as AP here in New York City. Having grown up between St. Louis, Chicago, and Michigan, AP is now a New York-based photographer. His style emanates the industrial nature of the Midwest, but there's a strong New York vein running throughout. AP’s work includes street, portraiture, and documentary photography yet he has a transcendent philosophy when it comes to his range. He finds landscape work to be more peaceful as it focuses on nature’s existence in of itself. The New York City streets, the subject he's perhaps most often associated with, he finds, are a transient flow; very rarely existing on their own.
Tonight, he comes garbed in a custom Peels university-stripe workwear shirt, unbuttoned with a white tee underneath, that might also operate as a Brooklyn bowling uniform. AP has a semiotic process when it comes to photography, his art primarily consisting of black and white still expressions. His behind-the-scenes shot of A$AP Rocky for a Mercer+Prince campaign landed as a magazine cover that you can find postered on New York City subway walls and Chicago billboards. He's worked with New York Magazine, GQ, Hidden NY, and many others. He uses the gravitational pull of his work to “enhance the chiaroscuro,” as he puts it. Where others might deem a scene vapid, AP finds himself moved by the phreatic anticipation of a scene, finding it in a portrait of Lady Gaga giving a "no requests" look while on the aux at Ray’s Bar, or a congested 5th Avenue. He wallows in the potential, and refers to time as his most reliable filter.
In the East Village, over an assortment of steamed vegetable dumplings, scallion pancakes, spring rolls, and fried rice, AP talks about intentionality when it comes to connecting with others, being authentic through art, how moments capture him, and more—partying with the Yakuza on a recent trip to Tokyo included.
I feel like every time I see you it’s in a room filled with people from all different backgrounds and sectors of society just hanging out and having a good time. And for some reason you’re always at the helm of it all. Why is that?
It’s how I grew up. I would hang with the preppy kids and the kids from the rough areas and I realized really early on that everybody actually has so much more in common than they’re conditioned to believe. People just put themselves in boxes and don’t let themselves explore the different parts of their humanity. Maybe that’s society’s doing. I think it’s necessary to be in rooms where you can merge and blend in different conversations. Knowing I can learn something from someone who works on Wall Street or hanging out with my director homie or my comedian homies, or my doctor homie, it’s all so important to me because it gives me more knowledge about life in general. If this was the Oregon Trail and all we had was a bunch of memes then we definitely wouldn’t make it.
You also have such a natural way of helping people feel comfortable in being themselves. Is that through photography? Or just your natural humor?
I guess they go hand in hand. Everybody’s dealing with so much shit. So rather I’ve got the camera or I’m just outside with folks, it’s really just me listening and paying attention. And if my responses or approach make people laugh then we roll with it. I’m just me. And it’s a gift I guess for me. The gift of gab, the gift of presence. A beautiful thing about life for me is that it is short. It’s helped drive me in finding my purpose and feeling accomplished in what I’m actively doing while I'm here. I know when I leave this motherfucker, like if I was to leave tomorrow, I’d know that I impacted at least New York while I was here. I’ve made people happy in other places too. I think I make a person happy each day. That all starts with making yourself happy but it’s soothing knowing I’d live on in that sense.
What makes you happy?
Waking up, movies, taking pictures. When I’m up, I’m like, “Thank God! Here we go again!” And as much as it makes me happy it also makes me go, “Alright, how are we gonna do it today?” Having opportunities, being alive, just existence even is so crazy to me! It doesn’t make any sense to me but it makes me go “wow” just to be in it! People make me happy! Food makes me happy, being at the cinema, looking at pictures. Just awareness makes me happy. It also makes me sad. It makes me a lot of emotions. That’s really what’s cool; being at peace with all the different emotions.
So much of your work exudes your personality and how you make people and places feel. How did you build your unique style of photography?
Well I originally went to school for film and that’s still a major part of my trajectory. I dropped out of film school, moved to New York, and fell in love with capturing the city through photography. I see photography as a way to compose things. It leveled up my composition and has taught me so much about detailing in one frame. I love to think about life on a philosophical level as well. Our biggest inspiration should be our own minds. There’s this element in Star Wars that emphasizes dark versus light and I love making art that hones in on black-and-white in and of themselves. You can’t have one without the other. There are so many creative devices that pop out more when it comes to black-and-white visuals.
"These trips really show me how we’re all really the same. It’s all one organism."
Do you think being transparent through your process helps people gravitate towards your work, and towards you?
I think it helps people a lot. Sometimes I haven’t been paid for the things people are celebrating me for! So the whole net 30 [payment terms] thing is crazy to me cause my rent is due in 30 days. We’re in a generation where shit is really hard for everybody. They’ve just been sweeping it under the rug for so long. I’m happy everyone’s on the same page but Black people have been on this shit. We’ve been trying to tell people how rigged these systems are. The people we work for don’t really care about us. It’s a strange thing but I feel like people are waking up and coming together now more and more. I guess in a sense we never truly get where we’re trying to go.
Where are you trying to go?
I’m going to Egypt as soon as I get my first major bag.
Because I have a picture I dream about taking everyday. So I’m gonna go take that picture and then be like, “Ok, I knew that was real,” and then I’m going to relax and think about life. Being a photographer you develop a sense where you know something’s coming. So it’s important to wait in the moment. Then it happens. I can already see the picture before it’s done. If I can see it in my mind then it’s only going to happen. Sometimes you just have to wait a little bit longer. Who knows we might take a great picture tonight and it’ll be your fault.
From shooting Snoop Dogg for GQ to iconic shots of Drake and Kendrick Lamar at their concerts, will the world ever get a rapper’s book from you?
It’s going to happen. I just want to find a way to have more intimate portraits that I could mix into the book. Shooting Drake was pretty cool. It was a fun show. I only had a 40mm lens on my camera but we had pretty good seats so the pictures came out great. Shooting Kendrick was funny because I just woke up and that’s what I wanted to do and the universe aligned everything up and voila, magic. I suppose that’s really how all my pictures happen though. All I’m really doing is paying attention.
You now travel globally for shoots, having recently been in London and Tokyo. How have those experiences shaped you?
These trips really show me how we’re all really the same. It’s all one organism. It was interesting to be enlightened to how these other cultures and cities flow. Japan is a whole different way of life. There’s so many people there. It feels like there’s 17 Time Squares but it’s also very zen. It’s peaceful. Roppongi Hills, Akihabara, Shinjuku are all so distinctly different yet overlap in so many ways. We went to a lot of creative parties and somehow I ended up going to the club with the Yakuza.
We met this girl and she told us to come to the club the next day and we were 10 minutes late. We pulled up and there’s two G-Wagons and there’s motherfuckers waiting and I’m like, “These people are mad respectful.” And we go into the club with them and there’s bottles being brought to us all night and I asked one of the guys, "What do you do?” And the girl told me not to ask silly questions like that.
How do you navigate staying true to your style and creating what feels right?
For me, I try to be completely transparent with my own work. Even in my actions I try to be vulnerable with people. It’s how I establish rapport. There’s no dressing it up. When I do things a certain way or put something on, or if I say things a certain way or act in a way, they realize that’s just who I am. I naturally use a plethora of methods to get my feelings and words out. My work allows me to feel through it. I just wish more people asked themselves, “Is this who you are, is this what it is? Or is this what everyone else is subconsciously telling you to be?”
Trying to break through in any medium of art is really hard. Yet I think at the end of it all authenticity supersedes everything. It’s gonna definitely take longer because I’m in that process currently. Being true to yourself is going to elevate your work, elevate your mind, and really just keep you at peace. I don’t have to pretend to be anybody. This is who I am. Being authentic to yourself changes your perception of everything.