Photography: Valerie Phillips | Interview: Magdalena Vukovic
MAGDALENA: It seems to me that you are interested in a very specific type of girl, seemingly regular but with an edge. They are beautiful, ballsy girls, but not insanely hot models.
VALERIE: When I want to photograph someone, I’ve got no agenda at all. I just know instinctively within 5 seconds that I have to photograph them. It’s a process I can’t describe because it’s so organic. As I child I was obsessively interested in gymnastics, especially Russian and Romanian, and someone pointed out to me years later, that all girls I become interested in have something similar to those gymnasts, a physical look.
MAGDALENA: How do you find your girls? What’s your casting process?
VALERIE: The majority of my girls are professional models. For the most part, the girls I have done books with I met traveling. Every once in a while I look through a model agency website or bookers contact me if they know what kind of girl I like to shoot. Then I take a day that I don’t have anything else on and get a bunch of girls to come around to my studio, just to say hi and have a chat. I am nosey. I get very intrigued by people and I have been like that since I was a little kid. I’m not just interested in a pretty girl. I couldn’t care less. Everyone is a pretty girl. When I met Amber from my last book Amber is for caution, she was 15. She came to a casting and was this grumpy little teenager. She was pretty obnoxious and I loved that she couldn’t have given a shit. It was so funny. She charmed me somehow and I knew I wanted to do a book with her. Also, there are certain things that I like, many of the girls that I shoot are really bright. Their life is an unfolding adventure that intrigues me.
MAGDALENA: Tell me more about Amber.
VALERIE: She’s a very intense and dramatic girl. She was modeling and doing quite well. She lived in Kentucky with her family and would come to Europe to model and do all the fashion weeks. On the way to a job in New York she just turned around and said “I am not doing this anymore!” She went back to the small town in Kentucky where she lived and got pierced and tattooed, cut her hair off and started training to be a surgical technician. I’m not really sure what’s going on with her at the moment. I haven’t been in touch with her for a few months. Last I heard she was pregnant.
MAGDALENA: What about Natalia Vodianova? The way she looks in your photos seems very different from how everybody else portrays her.
VALERIE: There is a beautiful image of her that Juergen Teller did in an early Marc Jacobs ad where she was actually pregnant in it. She looks really cute, like a pregnant 12 year old, but she was actually 18 or something. After that people started photographing her in these very posed, sedate ways. I don’t really like that kind of photography very much. Then I saw her in a Pet Shop Boys video being a kooky nut. She was one of those girls that I just thought I’m going to die over. She was magical, she has a face where you look at it and you don’t even have a frame of reference of how beautiful it is. It’s almost impossible to look at. You want to have a whole week of just looking so you can process it, because it is too much. Then this opportunity came up to shoot her for a magazine cover. I wanted to photograph her without a stylist, without hair and make up, just her and me rambling around in a flat somewhere in London and she’d bring some clothes and I’d do the same. It was one of my favorite shoots I’ve ever done. She looks so young in the pictures because there is no make up and styling. I get told that a lot. Even if I shoot a girl that is 27, people think she is 15 because I don’t like an overly made up look.
MAGDALENA: And Arvida Byström? To me she represents this new type of woman. She is empowered, emancipated, but super-girly, frail and silly, like Tavi Gevinson. They know their shit. I am always amazed by their liberal, confident use of subculture cross-references. I didn’t know about a lot of that stuff until I was in my early 20s.
VALERIE: That’s growing up online for you, access to information is off the hook. There is so much of it coming out all of us at a million miles an hour. It breaks my brain. I need to purposely disengage from it to be able to make any work at all. Maybe if you are 14 you can just suck it up like a sponge. I’ve been trying to write a text for my new book with Arvida and it’s about how I like the real world and she the cyber world. And it’s this place where we meet, which is an interesting connect and disconnect at the same time.
MAGDALENA: I’m obsessed with their world too. But now that I turned 31, I feel more and more left out of it. I catch myself reading Rookie and thinking is this still for me?
VALERIE: What? That’s ridiculous, you are such a baby. But you know, it’s funny, I don’t think I would have liked that when I was a teenager. I like it now, because I can appreciate it. I can read a book on the history of Victorian London and Rookie and it’s anthropologically interesting. When I was 14 I was into skateboarding and punk rock and I don’t know if I would have been reading Rookie.
MAGDALENA: That’s so fucking true. I wouldn’t have liked this 15 years ago.
VALERIE: It’s cool now because you think what a cool girl. She’s got off her ass and made something really amazing, put something really unique into the world. I mean I’ve never met her, but as somebody in their 40s, I think it’s really admirable and I appreciate that.
MAGDALENA: How did you begin taking photos?
VALERIE: I started my career in London. I grew up in New York, which was very expensive at the time I left. It was hard to get a place to live. You could either live somewhere really bad and have a difficult life or you could have a proper, serious job, in order to just pay your rent. I didn’t want to do any of that. I knew I wanted to do photography but it was mainly out of love for music. I just wanted to see and photograph bands all the time. That’s how I started, shooting music. All the music I loved was in London. Punk and post-punk, Public Image Ltd and PJ Harvey.
MAGDALENA: Is there a big difference between working in the UK and in the US?
VALERIE: For commercial work there is a big difference. There’s a certain humanity that still resides in England and Europe in general. The States are a bit more cutthroat in business, commerce and money. I try to connect my commercial work seamlessly with my personal work. If I’m doing a campaign for Nike I want it to look like my books. It’s a generalization, but sometimes I think it’s a bit easier to do here.
MAGDALENA: Do the big companies give you freedom?
VALERIE: I am not really versatile. I do what I do and people either love that or they don’t. So if they love it, they give me freedom to a certain extent to bring my style to their brand and that involves the casting, styling and art direction. And if they don’t like it there are a million other photographers – it’s all so subjective – you can hire someone very high end, glossy, retouched, immaculate, posed and that’s fine. It’s just not what I do.
MAGDALENA: Your viewpoint of a sexy, girly aesthetic has been very influential. I’d like to hear a bit about this magical universe.
VALERIE: I am very interested in certain people instinctively, something about them just resonates with me and I have to know more. I want to see what their life looks like and make a project that reflects this reasonably and accurately. I’m very interested in reality. I don’t like lots of fantasy, imposed nonsense and narratives. For the most part everything I do is rooted in very simple realities. The nature of the pictures and the amount of freedom I’m able to have with the girls depends on their age. I’m very careful when I’m shooting younger girls, to be respectful of their age.
MAGDALENA: And what makes girl culture so appealing?
VALERIE: Girls are just exciting and strange – formed, fully formed, partially formed. Their lives are full of interesting, weird experiments, trying to figure their shit out and I love the beautiful mess that it makes. I think it’s more appealing than guy-culture, because girls are more familiar to me. Guys are more guarded and they don’t unfold themselves mentally and physically in a way that is as intriguing. I don’t really know why that is, but maybe because I was a teenage girl and I thought it was interesting back then and still do now. There are certain guys that I can photograph, weirdly enough my boyfriend lets me do whatever I want.
MAGDALENA: In your work sometimes you focus so much on one person that it seems like they live on a completely deserted planet.
VALERIE: That’s so true. I get a lot of shit from my agents, why I don’t photograph more groups. I just want to concentrate fully on this one connection with one person. To me it’s so much more interesting and powerful. I want to see one person, what’s in their eyes and gestures.
MAGDALENA: Does this also play a role in your books and zines? You use a lot of double images or variants of a similar portrait.
VALERIE: I’ve always loved triptychs and diptychs. Sometimes it can add to the power of an image. It might be little different gestures or just eye contact and then it can seem like one photograph split in two. When I make my books, I go through many files and print out tons of stuff on my little color laser printer here in my studio. Then I lay them all out in sketchbooks with double-sided tape. I never edit them on a computer, I want things to follow by certain colors, patterns or poses. Someone once told me that it would improve my work if someone else would edit it, which I thought was funny and rude. That’s definitely not going to happen. That’s my absolute favorite bit. I’m not going to do all the hard work and then give it to someone else.
MAGDALENA: Why books and zines as a medium?
VALERIE: I just love physical, printed work. I grew up with that culture. In New York there was a shop that still exists called Printed Matter. It was like going into some enchanted world, a weird cool place that was way cooler than me. There were books made by artists and strange little photos or zines, limited edition art books. I loved it all even though I didn’t completely understand it. The best thing that has happened in my career is that they sell all my books and zines there today.
MAGDALENA: With all these millions of photographers and the digital age, do you think a lot has changed?
VALERIE: Oh yeah! It absolutely, completely changed and I think in a positive way. There was a preciousness about the old model that perhaps needed some dusting off and the walls broken down. When I started it seemed more like an isolated profession. There weren’t a lot of girls doing it and now there are so many. It’s amazing and I don’t even mean in terms of gender, rather that there are so many people interested in doing it. The only downside is, because everybody thinks they are a photographer there’s definitely an abundance of shit. You have to dig through that to find the great, inspiring, individual, unique work. That’s fine though, I’d rather have it like that.
MAGDALENA: That’s a very positive perspective, both from you and in your photographs. You exude this. Other people and photographers I’ve spoken to see these changes a bit more negatively.
VALERIE: The only thing that I don’t like about my industry is the shameless copying that goes on. I get ripped of a crazy amount! And so do a lot of other people and that is disgusting.
MAGDALENA: But it’s getting hard to be original these days.
VALERIE: I don’t think so. Let’s say you are 25, your experience of life and the conversations you had, the friendships you made, the difficulties you had and the things that you’ve loved since you were a kid, or that you hated, where you live and where you travel. Every single person has such a different experience. If people could put that into their photography, they couldn’t help but have an original take on something. It’s hard to find a way of putting what is in your head in your pictures. If they would follow what’s in their brain instead of thinking what’s on page 25 in i-D, they would be making original work.
Check out Valerie’s new book hi you are beautiful how are you? coming out at the end of September and at the Tokyo Art Book Fair this fall.