London based photographer Valerie Phillips tends to sneak into a girl's everyday life, documenting her candid beauty in intriguing ordinary scenes, remaining silent but maintaining a very specific shooting style. Raw, real and rosy, her subjects are presented in a non-narrative manner, questioning social expectations on appearance, behavior and purpose. With works on wannabe astronauts, gymnasts, or heavy metal, Valerie explores the determination of young women and their stories.
In her newest work, she finds herself discovering the dualities of one on one relationships in the internet era, facing the physical world in her photography process and her own traditional way of connecting with people, with her subject's cyber culture. Swedish artist and model Arvida Byström has become a strong inspiration for Valerie, and since they met, they have been collaborating in photography projects as muse and artist respectively, playing around a conversation of moody cultural conventions and ideal empowerment. Valerie explores Arvida's fragile and fun personality, and her daring feminist choices, in a recompilation of unguarded portraits Hi you are beautiful how are you?, which just launched in Japan this past Sunday, is Valerie Philips seventh book.
Why did you chose Tokyo as the location for your new book's launch party?
I've got a lot of -I don't know if you call them fans, but I guess- fans for my work in Tokyo. A lot of teenage and twenty-something girls that are very well versed in photo books and zines and youth culture, and they're quite creative…it's a really interesting collection of people who follow me on Instagram; we're sort of friends and colleagues. I thought it would be really nice to launch over there, in a culture that I'm very fascinated with and that appreciates what I do, and that I find very very inspiring for my work as well.
Would you say that most of your fans, as you put it, are young women in their teens or early twenties?
I think it's probably a real mixture, but maybe the ones that contact me and send me presents and are more social media savvy are the ones that are around 20. There is a lot of older, 30's, 40's, 50's, Japanese men that are also really interested in my work…I suppose because they have a whole culture of photography that is male dominated. So it's definitely a mixture.
Do you use social media a lot for your work? You've mentioned you establish relationships with your fans through Instagram, for example.
I decided to do social media the way I wanted to do my work, a little bit more controlled and a little bit more in my own style, so what I did is kind of set an agenda of having each month be a particular project. So it might be February, sketchbook month, and there's a bunch of pictures of my sketchbooks; and April might be pictures from my first book. I just didn't want it to become an endless stream of pictures of what I had for lunch or someone on the bus… because I wanted to keep it reflecting the way I do my zines and books, on a project basis.
Where does Maria Pizzeria come in?
I decide the content and she puts it all together and posts it for me. Maria Pizzeria is a blogger and PR girl, very internet savvy. I gather the content and she posts it on Instagram, for example. We collaborate and decide different ideas and projects under my direction.
A lot of people have another person doing their social media, but it's rarely made public. But with you is different, you mention her in your Instagram bio, for example, and give her credit for it.
I think it's kind of nice to say that it's posted by someone else. Although I look at it all the time, people that talk to me on Instagram are talking to me, I get back to them personally and we chat...
That's an honest approach...
The first person who set all that up for me was Arvida, and then she got too busy. Those girls are just great, they've got a real personality and it's fun to link in with them and make my social media more fun.
Arvida Byström helped you with social media for a while, she is the subject of three of your zines (“A Fantastic Kitten”, “This Is My Drivers License”, “Meow”), and now your new book, “hi beautiful, how are you?” is about her too. Why Arvida?
I think that's a really good question, really tricky, because with all the books I've done I don't know if I could explain to you why that person. I'm just drawn to certain people and it seems really organic and really obvious to me that there is something that I'm fascinated by. I fall drawn to them and I start taking pictures. With certain people it becomes real obvious to me that this is a book project or something, rather than just a day, or a weekend, or a couple of weeks shooting, I like to continue the piece and make something that I think represents their life or certainly my edit of a slice or fragment of their lives.
She (Arvida Byström) is a really really smart interesting girl, a very curious mixture of feminist intellectual and just free spirited fun twenty-something [year old] girl trying to figure out her shit in the world. And she's a great artist, photographer; very tricky to get to know, and I think that's quite interesting as well.
Did she open up the cyber world for you?
A little bit. I don't really like the way most people use it for their endless kind of nonsense and banality. I didn't really want to just become another spammer in the world so I wanted to figure out another way to do it so that people who like my work and engage with it on print, would enjoy my social media feed too. If they don't like my work they don't follow me. So I wanted to have it seamlessly blended with the work that I put out into the world and have it that content reflect what I think about and what I care about. She definetely helped me with that.
What about tumblr? Arvida is a tumblr sensation on this niche of artsy feminist pink world…
I don't spend time on tumblr, Arvida set up my tumblr because her tumblr was very very inspiring to me, I think it's an incredible work of art, moreso than anyone's that I've seen online. And so she set mine up for me and she was kind of curating it with me for a few months until she got busy with her own projects – she's a photographer and artist, and she's off traveling- so we just passed it along to our friend Maria Pizzeria who is also great at all that sort of stuff, really good and really creative. I just do the content, like I said I set the monthly projects, and otherwise I really just communicate on Instagram cos that's my favorite of them.
Do you interact at all with other tumblers and spend time surfing the web?
I generally don't. Occasionally I'll look on people's tumblrs but I rather be out taking pictures for books and zines, and have a huge amount of back material. I spend most of my time dealing with that, and also wasting my time in other ways!
Oh I would have thought that you met Arvida Byström on tumblr… How did you meet her then?
I met her through a mutual friend of ours that's a filmmaker for Vice, Milenne Larson. They're both Swedish, and she said that we'd really get along.
And she was right!
Yeah! It's all written in the text on my book...
Is that how you meet most of your subjects, through friends in common? Or do you shoot the girls in your daily life as well?
No, I've met them all in completely different ways, every one of them. Traveling, at a Halloween parade in NY, one is a model, I've met girls on planes, on Instagram…
And then something clicks and you take it to the next step?
Yeah. Although with Arvida, I never planned doing a book with her, I just flew her over from Sweden for a long Easter weekend and we started taking pictures at my brother in law's big house in East London that he was kind of renovating. We just spent 3 or 4 days kind of rambling around and taking pictures, and we made a zine from that, or we made two zines from that, and then it kind of just followed on. So eventually I realized that this body of work that we had, I'd like to continue it and tailor it into a book, and that's what we did.
So the same work from that weekend got reedited and made it into the book?
The book is a combination of images from the 3 zines we made, and then a huge amount of other work we made that's never been seen. The whole book is this time period of two years that started with that long Easter weekend.
How is your work process? Do you get inspired by a girl you meet, or do you have an idea for a book and then look for the perfect girl for that and work towards it?
It's always led by the person (I'm photographing). Always, yeah.
How do you describe your photography? Do you consider yourself a Fashion photographer, or lifestyle? Or do you identify your work more with documentary?
I couldn't possibly categorize what I do. I think those categories are so difficult because I do shoot fashion in my commercial job and I guess what I do with my books is somewhat documentary… But I wouldn't say it's documentary in the sense that someone is documenting serious political issues like a war, I guess it's my version of documentary, that has quite a lot of my input. I am happy for people to look at it [my work] and decide what they think that it is, but I wouldn't say that it's in any of those categories particularly. Everyone interprets these categories differently.
What about your fashion jobs? You shoot for big street brands such as Nike, Puma, Aritzia, Adidas, ...
People that are very hardcore in the Fashion world wouldn't think my pictures are fashion because fashion to them is led by the brands that you're shooting, and styling and makeup. And these are not my priorities or my interests. Sometimes I shoot fashion but it's probably more youth culture, street style, sporty. It's fashion but it's not Balenciaga.
Well even your fashion work has your signature in it. You're able to translate your style really well into your more commercial shoots and never compromise it.
I wouldn't do it any other way. It's really important to me that my pictures look like my pictures and I don't know how to shoot any other way. I'm not very versatile. I've done a few things that were very technical and that was pushing it, and it's not very satisfying. Sometimes you do that for the money that pays for all your art projects and stuff, but I don't really go much further than that, I don't know how.
All your subjects have been young girls. What kind of girl are you looking for? Do you find yourself being amused by the same type of girl?
I definetely don't have an agenda. I don't have a particular thing that I'm ever looking for, but I think that's because I was very very inspired and influenced by gymnastics when I was a kid, especially by a lot of Russian and Romanian gymnasts. Those Eastern European girls really influenced my personal style, taste, and obsessions when I was a kid…I think a lot of the girls that I cast, unconsciously end up looking a lot like those girls that mesmerized me when I was a child.
You were into skateboarding too, right? Do you still skateboard?
Yes, but I don't anymore. I mean, I skateboard occasionally for transportation, but not in any major way, which is a shame, I should have just kept on doing it.
I think it's really interesting the way you merge these two aesthetics in your photographs, gymnastics and skateboarding. It's a beautiful imagery contradiction since the worlds around it represent opposite lifestyles : the free-spirited tomboy style of skateboarding mixed with the disciplined felinity of gymnastics…
Well the thing is I used to combine the two. When I was on the skateboard team as a kid, I was the only girl, and although I wasn't good at gymnastics I was better than the boys on my skateboard team. All the boys were really good at park riding and ramps and skating pools and whatever, and I was good at freestyle 'cos I would do handstands and tricks like that. That's how I carved my tiny little niche.
Oh, okay! I can see this in your work, this kind of tomboy pretty girl, delicate and wild.
That was my life, music, skateboarding and gymnastics, and outer space.
Going back to the type of girls you like to shoot, for your books and zines it seems like they are all coming of age, discovering themselves, naive…
They are all different ages, the youngest I shot (One More Minute For Courtney, Please) was eleven or twelve, the other girls are all on their late teens or early twenties. It really varies, I'm never trying to tell a coming of age story, I don't really like narrative very much. I like looking at a slice of someone's life and seeing if that accurately reflects what their real experience is, it's probably my experience of their experience, and I am sure a lot of it is very self referential, but I think that's the nature of what you do. Although I suppose there is something about people being in that kind of not quite knowing what their thing is yet that I find very interesting. But I don't think that has an age limit, people are trying to figure it out all the time.
Right, so then, why do you think it is that you portrait young girls on your books?
Well, okay I suppose they are young, they're all under 30, let's say. I think that a lot of it is because it's interesting before someone is kind of fully into the stride of what they're doing, that journey to figure out what that stuff is and where does that takes you along the way. But I wouldn't say it's an absolutely planned agenda. I'm currently liking shooting girls that are over 18, there's more of a freedom to it, I like that they're an adult and have a more free dialogue.
Who is Elle Farrow? (Valerie's website bio is signed by a 12 year old Elle Farrow)
Elle Farrow is the daughter of Mark Farrow, who's a very famous incredible British designer, he's designed all my books and he's done numerous records sleeves. She is 17 by now, I've been photographing her since she was a little kid and she once wrote that and I thought it was so funny, I think it was for a school report on a photoshoot we'd just had. When I look at other photographer's bios, honestly I'm so horrified, it's just this endless tirade of shameless self promotion… and I really can't be that boring person.
The title of your new book, hi you are beautiful how are you? seems like a commentary on the cyber world. Is that right?
It came from Arvida herself, of something she had put up on Facebook. I basically stole it from her, with her permission! I thought it was a really beautiful phrase, I took the punctuation out, I thought that is a really interesting social media kind of current / dating website argot. It's kind of nonsense and poetic at the same time.