Interview by Stazia Lindes
“I have always disliked really slick, conventional, boring
stuff where you can’t tell someone’s personality. I was interested in
pictures that showed some humanity in that person, that made
me want to know more about their world and what it looked like.”
— Valerie Phillips
Valerie Phillips is a New York-born fashion photographer, currently based in London. She has shot numerous commercial fashion campaigns, editorials, celebrities and musicians. Since 2001, Phillips has published eight limited-edition books, each documenting the authentic and un-precious daily life of a different girl, most recently hi you are beautiful how are you (2015) with Arvida Bÿstrom. Phillip’s forthcoming book, Another Girl Another Planet, is released via Rizzoli, curating her favorite images from the last 15 years. Her work is regularly featured in the New York Times, Daily Telegraph, Nylon, Teen Vogue, Vice, and iD. She has exhibited in New York, Tokyo, London, Berlin, Barcelona and New York.
Stazia Lindes is a London-born, California-raised model and musician. Her father is Dire Straits guitarist Hal Lindes, and she currently plays guitar and sings in the LA-based riot grrrl band The Paranoyds.
Another Girl Another Planet
Another Girl Another Planet is Valerie Phillips’s eighth published book, and her first book published by Rizzoli International. Phillips has selected and curated her best work from her limited edition, self-published books, as well as images from her editorials, advertising and music albums. The book serves as a celebration of personal style and the female spirit, as well as Phillips’ distinguished career so far.
The Only Ones
An English rock band formed in London in 1976 and disbanded in 1982, the Only Ones reformed in 2006 and completed a comeback tour in the UK in 2007. They are associated with punk rock, yet straddle the territory between punk, rock and power-pop, with influences from psychedelic rock.
One day in 2012, I went to the beach with friends completely forgetting I had a casting for Stussy Japan. I turned up in my 1998 s70 Volvo with nasty beach hair, a bit of a sunburn and the wrong outfit, wearing stupid heels I kept in the trunk. When I met Valerie that day, I felt she was really looking at me, but not in the same snobby way I had been tirelessly looked at before. I felt relieved and strangely comfortable. Yes, I was in a bit of a state and did not expect the results of this casting to go well, but as a surprise to me, Valerie saw something. She had me remove the stupid heels and asked me what my room looked like. I’m guessing that when I showed her the pictures of my apartment, she felt the same way I did the first time I went to her treehouse dream home in London: “What a junk collecting freak! She’s a weirdo too! Finally, someone who gets me!” It was love at first sight.
It felt crazy to have someone really believe in me in those early years of my career. Since then, Valerie and I have had some amazing adventures. I feel so lucky to have been a part of her projects. Valerie is someone to look up to: a strong woman who doesn’t take any shit and always stands her ground, even after years of having to please fashion clients. This industry is a madhouse, and you have to hand it to her. She believes in fighting for what makes you special—the stuff that you sometimes feel like you have to hide in order to be accepted. I hope I can be like Valerie when I grow up. She falls in love with the soul—just take a look at how honest her work is.
Stazia Lindes: What’s the oldest picture in Another Girl Another Planet, and what’s the history behind the book?
Valerie Phillips: It’s [named after] my favorite Only Ones song, “Another Girl Another Planet.” The bulk of the book is from the last seven or eight years, but there’s some stuff that’s from 2000, onwards. I didn’t want it to end up being a retrospective. I chose what I really loved. It’s all my favorite pictures; the pictures I felt really connected to. I felt the girls in it, and we made a really amazing bond. I love the memories of those days, those shoots and those adventures.
SL: I was just thinking about how you ended up shooting [Only Ones lead singer Peter Perrett] and it was kind of sad.
VP: Yeah, he was intense. I shot him years ago, and he was kind of in a bad way at the time, but trying to recover. He always had a really serious drug problem, but he was amazing: such a good person with such a good soul. He was so sweet and lovely and seemed very fragile. It’s weird—they made this kickass music that changed my life, and then you’re confronted with this guy at his house, like, “Do you want a cup of tea?” But it was really cool to be able to use that for my title. I was really excited.
“My work is not really documentary
photojournalism, war stuff.
It’s people in their environments and
how they navigate their world.”
— Valerie Phillips
SL: Who gave you your first camera?
VP: My dad. A little point-and-shoot Instamatic with film and a little flash on the top.
SL: How old were you?
VP: Probably eight or nine.
SL: Did you continuously shoot after that?
VP: Not really. It was fun to take pictures of my friends, but I didn’t take it too seriously. I always loved making art and sketchbooks and scrapbooks, and I wanted to have a reason to buy the art equipment to make stuff. I suppose eventually photography became integrated in that.
SL: Where did you grow up?
SL: Are there pictures you took when you were young that you still have?
VP: I took some pictures of my friends, but I was an obsessive skateboarder and music head. I was wrapped up in that and didn’t think about documenting it, annoyingly. There wasn’t such a photographic culture as there is now. I was just doing it rather than, “Wait a minute, let me make sure I take pictures of all of it.”
SL: When you were in high school and developed your tastes, was there a photography style that you had in your head, or certain models or subjects you wanted to shoot?
VP: I was obsessed with gymnastics, especially the Romanians and Russians. There was a certain look that I was completely and utterly obsessed with: gymnasts and and what their lives looked like when they weren’t doing gymnastics.
So I got interested in documenting a certain kind of reality, but with a bit of a twist on it. I never realized until Jason, my boyfriend, pointed out that pretty much all my girls look this way, which was somehow formulated by what those gymnasts looked like, their physicality and what they wore. My work is not really documentary photojournalism, war stuff. It’s people in their environments and how they navigate their world. I also started loving to see bands and photograph bands, so that’s what I did. And that’s how I started professionally.
SL: You were growing up in New York in kind of a cool time, right?
VP: Yeah, New York was badass—rough and dirty and really fucked up.
SL: What kind of shows did you see?
VP: I was obsessed with British bands. The early bands that I saw were Adam and the Ants and Echo and the Bunnymen and Husker Do, although they’re not British. When I was younger, I was totally obsessed with Bow Wow Wow, all that kind of new, romantic, post-punk kind of stuff. Every band came to New York and played all the time, so a couple of my degenerate friends and I were out constantly, seeing bands like idiots, and never went to school. And then I got more into Smashing Pumpkins and PJ Harvey and the Pixies and Nick Cave and all that.
SL: That’s exciting. Did you ever feel a connection to fashion at that age?
VP: I never really dressed like the normal kids dressed in school. I would wear yellow Adidas tracksuit bottoms tucked into sport socks with crazy Adidas sneakers and a cape or band-leader jacket. I always did my own thing and, in New York at that time, people were just like, “Whatever.” I was into fashion in a non-fashiony, make-it-up-from-thrift-stores, mix-and-match way.
I have always disliked really slick, conventional, boring stuff where you can’t tell someone’s personality. So I was interested in pictures that showed some humanity in that person, something that engaged me, that made me want to know more about their world and what it looked like. I wanted to know about the girls and their lives when they weren’t standing and posing in some gross dress.
SL: You like a bit of texture and background in your pictures, like a story.
“I was into fashion in a
stores, mix-and-match way.”
— Valerie Phillips
VP: Not even necessarily a story. I wanted to see something in pictures that sparked my curiosity, and most things didn’t. I ended up having to make the pictures that I wanted to see. I don’t think I was really influenced by anyone photographically, because there wasn’t really a whole lot of stuff that I liked. I had to make it, which I guess is a good thing. At least my pictures, whether people like them or not, look like something from my brain and my world rather than anything else.
SL: You have to know what you don’t like to make room for what you like. It’s the same way with music.
VP: Totally. It’s weird to me: I don’t understand why people would make music or photography or art if they woke up in the morning like, “Okay, I’m going to copy that thing.” How is that interesting or fulfilling? I feel like I get out of bed and I’m compelled, obsessed by certain things, and I have to go and make them. That doesn’t mean anyone needs to like them, but at least it’s fulfilling for me. It’s really necessary. It must be the same for you with your band. I’m sure you have influences or people whose music you love, and I have art and photography and music that I love, but I couldn’t copy any of it if I tried. I’m not technical or talented enough to be able to replicate anyone else’s thing.
SL: I feel the same way.
VP: I used to get asked, early on, when I was starting to shoot ads and stuff, “So we want it to look like this, this and this.” When you’re younger, you think, “I need to prove that I’m a photographer and can do all these kinds of jobs,” but I’d just think, “Oh my god. I don’t know how to make anything look like that.” I would just be totally out of my depth and not know what to do. Later on you realize, “I’m not going to do that. It’s not my work. If you want that thing, then you need to ask someone whose work looks like that.”
SL: Yeah, mood boards are a bit of a letdown when you get to the job.
VP: I think that people learned really quickly not to show me any mood boards because there’s no way I was ever going to do that. Number one, I just don’t understand. Mood boards are a bunch of pictures that other people took. So I have no idea, to this day, what the fuck I’m supposed to think about a mood board. What does that have to do with our shoot?
I think I would end up getting slightly obnoxious about it. When people would ask me to put mood boards together, I would say, “Here’s some of my stuff. That’s what it looks like. I’m really happy to work with you, and we can collaborate together to make something amazing.” I show up and improvise as I go along.
SL: I feel like you definitely shape and adapt to who you’re shooting. And how could you predict that?
VP: One hundred percent. It’s so important to me. What the girls that I’ve shot, especially in this book, have brought to the shoot, you couldn’t put that in a mood board. This book is a celebration of that. It’s all these girls who are super smart and interesting and chaotic and have their own weird shit that you could never plan for. That’s so exciting to photograph. That’s a huge privilege and pleasure. So yeah, fuck the mood board, basically.
SL: So we both kind of obsessively collect certain things. This is a question from Travis, my boyfriend: Why do you collect snow globes?
VP: I really love that question, but the sad thing is, I don’t collect them anymore. I used to collect them. I like lots of the same sort of things all together, like a snow globe and a vase and a toy airplane—things that replicate each other. So I liked having loads of snow globes. Once I had six or seven snow globes, people would be like, “You collect snow globes!” My friend, who was a tour manager, came back with 30 snow globes for me from Australia. People always ended up bringing them to me because they’re cheap and easy to carry. So I ended up with this crazy collection.
SL: It’s funny you say the snow globe thing because that’s kind of what’s happened with my brother and I. Everyone gets us Elvis stuff now, and it’s pretty gross. Both of our apartments are just filled.
VP: The problem with people knowing what you like is that you end up with people’s sort of slight misunderstandings of what you like—the kind of dumb, modern version of the flea-market find.
SL: The stepmom Christmas present version of it, like, “You like weird, creative things…”
VP: Exactly! “You like toy-like, kitsch stuff! I’ll get you a frame with Barbie heads on it.” And you’re like, “That’s gross. No, thanks.”
“At least my pictures, whether people like them
or not, look like something from my
brain and my world rather than anything else.”
— Valerie Phillips
SL: So you love Japan. What’s your story with Japan?
VP: I went to Japan for the first time probably about 10 years ago for British Elle. I always wanted to go there and always loved Japanese things. When I was a little kid in New York, we would go down to the grocery stores in Chinatown, and they have all these Japanese stickers and toys and Hello Kitty. I fell in love with that world through all the characters and stuff that you can collect. And then I got really into Japanese music magazines and would always go to the Japan bookstore and spend a ludicrous amount of my babysitting money. I love their take on British and American pop culture mixed with Japanese culture; the sort of misunderstanding of cultures that all stirs around in a big pot and comes out with something amazing, like Babydoll Goth. All those combinations that you don’t quite understand, but they’re so weird and cool.
SL: Do you go to Tokyo mostly?
VP: Yes. I’m going in October and am hoping to go to Osaka, to a bookstore there which is one of the first to stock my published books. Jason and I have gone to Tokyo for the past few years, and we’ve made so many friends, seen so many cool, weird things and just had the best time. The people are so much fun. They drink so much and do so much karaoke. Everything is open all night long. It’s nuts, beautiful and weird. It’s like going to another planet and still being on earth. They also really like my books there, so it’s exciting. I get treated like a rock star and come crashing back down to earth afterwards.
SL: Where do you want to travel next?
VP: I know this is kind of a weird thing to say, but I’m not in love with traveling because I traveled so much for so many years doing my commercial career. I feel like I want to be somewhere where I can just concentrate on making work for a while, not necessarily jumping on planes and being all over the place. I need a base where I can wake up in the morning with the headspace and clarity, and go to bed in the same bed every night. LA, Tokyo, New York, London is kind of my route. And Colorado, where my sister lives. That’s sort of limited, but it’s what I like at the moment.
SL: Is there anywhere you think you would find good subjects?
VP: It would be fun to go to Siberia. It’s so massive that I wouldn’t know where to start, but I think that would be really interesting. I like when faces are a mix of different cultures, almost borderless-looking. A lot of my girls have that, even if they’re British or American—a weird look that is slightly ethereal and otherworldly. You can’t necessarily tell where they came from.