Valerie Phillips is not known for putting up with bullshit, which is why I am panicking when our Skype call (the third attempt) malfunctions. She messages me: “Why don’t you just email me some questions?” I am terrified that I have pissed her off, but maybe she’s just tired, it is 11:30 p.m. London time and she is flying to Japan the next morning to celebrate the release of her new book hi you are beautiful how are you, a project created in conjunction with internet tastemaker Arvida Byström.
hi you are beautiful is Phillip’s seventh book, she makes zines, does fashion photography and album covers, her portrait of Sienna Miller resides in the National Portrait Gallery, and she is co-founder of Cherryvale Skate Company, which, as far as I can tell, does actually sell skateboards. In all of her work her vision is clear and uncompromising; there is a youthful malaise in her books, which center around magnetic young women who alternately stare down and show off for the camera. In her newest collaboration, Phillips showcases the bubble gum sensibilities of Byström in a touching portrait of a young woman finding her place in a world that is lived online.
You have a long history of creating and contributing to zines. Why do you think that medium is important? There is a book store in NY called Printed Matter. When I was a teenager I was fascinated by all the zines and artist’s books in there. That mysterious punk-art-DIY world had a massive influence on me.
I think it’s really important to put work out into the world without the content being determined by someone else’s agenda. Publishing zines (and books) is the best way I know to get my work out 100% on my terms, undiluted. And the nature of zines being a limited run, inexpensive and easy to make means you can put out as many projects as you like, as often as you like. The fact that Printed Matter have been selling my books and zines since I started publishing, is a complete dream come true.
I’ve always collected zines and independent photo books. I rarely buy big impersonal monographs.
There is a vulnerability and a nakedness to your photos, is that a result of the relationship you develop with your models or is it the models themselves? It’s absolutely the result of the relationship. The images you see are not dispassionate documentation, nor detached observation, but a record of our experience working very closely together. I’m an active participant in the process, and while my pictures generally remain true to the life of my subject, they inevitably reflect that participation. Most photography that we are used to seeing (particularly in fashion) is artificial, superficial, overly retouched, and many stages removed from reality. The pictures I make are a celebration of real life, and maybe that is why there is a vulnerability. They haven’t been put through layers of unnecessary sanitization, or had the humanity knocked out of them.
On a similar note, what do you look for in your models/subjects? When I meet someone that I need to photograph it’s completely obvious to me. I cast purely on instinct There is no check list, I just know when I stumble upon that person, and it’s always thrilling.
How did you and Arvida Byström first meet? Would you work together again? We met on Skype. A mutual friend showed me a self portrait Arvida had done, and I immediately knew I had to photograph her for myself. I rang her to see if she would come to London to make pictures with me.
I would definitely work with her again and again and again, and I hope to. That unpredictable chemistry which often occurs, working closely and intimately on a book with someone, is really exciting and the closest thing to falling in love I can think of.
It was recently written about this book that, "It questions traditional societal expectations of female beauty, demeanour and lifestyle;" is that a statement you would agree with or how would you disagree? That’s not necessarily a conscious statement I try to make, but it is very much part of what Arvida brings to the world, and to this book. My pictures represent my own taste which is definitely at odds with how women are often represented in mainstream media.
It's been written that you have an "obsession with horses, the moon, and all thing Americana," what does Americana mean to you? I love horses and outerspace, and they both make frequent appearances in my work.I’m not so sure about “all things Americana” but I do like traveling through the midwest for all it’s melancholic beauty. I’ve been really inspired by that part of the country. I shot my second book—‘Look At Me, I’m Lacy’ in Oklahoma and Kansas. And my third book, ‘One More Minute For Courtney, Please’ is about a gymnast in Oklahoma. I spent a lot of time exploring those states. Very different to the urban landscapes I grew up in—New York City and London.
Our issue that is out right now is dedicated to the Grind, you have a successful commercial and fine arts career and you co-founded Cherryvale Skateboard Company, I'm sure you are always spinning a million plates at once, what would you like to say about the photography/arts grind? What makes you keep your head in the game? My main objective is to put work into the world that is of value and importance to me. I don’t see what I do as a grind because I’ve worked to get myself into into a position where I can do things on my own terms. When I don’t think a commission is right for me—commercial, editorial, or otherwise—I’ll turn it down. Or if I’m off somewhere shooting a book for months that will be my priority.