Valerie Phillips

text by Pamela Sustaita

I was probably 15 years old when I first got acquainted with Valerie’s work, there weren’t many great magazines in Mexico, so imagine my surprise when I opened Baby Baby Baby; It was full of fun editorials brimming with color and stickers. The pages that got burned into my mind forever were Valerie’s. There was a certain mysticism behind the colorful hues of the photos. Where girls as protagonists, transported you to a messy and magical universe. Their own universe. None of the scenarios or territories of this world are planned or decorated as a ‘set’. This is the most striking aspect of Valerie’s work, as it evidences the intimacy in which the photos were taken, editorials in situ that reflect the reality of the characters as well as the photograph itself. It’s like a never ending story that tells and tells a sparkly yet messy story about youth, identity and that magical haze surrounding teenager-dom; endless possibilities. Magic in every tiny corner.

I never thought I’d have the honor of interviewing one of my favorite photographers! But here we are, and Bubblegum is happy to feature an exclusive interview with Valerie about her newest book, “I had a dream you married a boy“ as well as some questions we all once dreamed of asking her.

all photos are courtesy of the artist

Pamela: Tell us in your own words, who is Valerie? 

Valerie: An endless tomboy teenager with no plans to ever grow up. 

P: Can you tell us a little more about who you were as a kid and as a teen? What did you like, what excited the most about the world?
V: When I was a kid in New York I was into skateboarding – street skating mostly. I wasn’t interested in school much, I thought the teachers were idiots and I didn’t take it very seriously. Everything I learned was from my own outside interests and my parents. I liked art and gymnastics and stickers and making things. 

An endless tomboy teenager with no plans to ever grow up.

As a teenager I was completely music obsessed. I went out to clubs constantly from age 13 /14 to see all the British bands that came over. Nobody got carded in Manhattan back then. There were so many underage kids out at clubs, it was really fun. Often I’d pretend to sleep at a friend’s and we’d stay out all night seeing bands, eat breakfast at a diner, then go straight to school. The best times

P: When did you hold a camera for the first time?
V: My dad was a very good amateur photographer. I think he gave me a Kodak Instamatic that came with stickers when I was pretty young. I liked taking pictures of my toy cars and things I built. Then my friends at school. And eventually bands. 

P: I can tell Arvida is a very common character in your work, why do you think you make such a great team? How did you two meet and start to work together on projects?
V: Arvida and I met when a very intuitive mutual friend realized we needed to know each other. I Skyped with Arvida and asked if I could buy her a plane ticket to London (from Stockholm) to shoot with me. At first she wasn’t too excited at the offer because she wanted to concentrate on her own photography/art career, rather than “modeling”. Somehow I convinced her it would be a good idea. Now two books and several zines later, we laugh about that first conversation a lot. We got on really well from the first shoot and found it quite instinctive the way we work together. Some of my all time fave pictures I’ve made with Arvida. We could talk easily about most things and make each other laugh, which is massively important. She’s an amazing artist and I love how totally different our work is. It’s definitely mutual appreciation society 🙂

P: What’s the story behind “I had a dream you married a boy”? 
V: At the beginning of the year Arvida and I talked of going on a road trip through her native Sweden to shoot new work together. When the pandemic made that impossible, we decided to shoot over wifi. Arvida in the suburbs of Stockholm, me in London. Skype and FaceTime. Sometimes unexpected constraints make inspiring working conditions.

P: How was working through Skype and FaceTime? Was this something that developed because of the pandemic?
V: ‘I Had A dream You Married A Boy’ is a direct result of Arvida and myself not being able to travel during lockdown. It was a bit of an experiment to see if we could shoot a whole book the way we wanted, via Skype and FaceTime. Arvida is a great technician because of her experience as a photographer herself, so she was instrumental in setting up her laptop and phone the way I wanted – whether it was in the woods, or the supermarket, or the bathtub. Her suggestions and ideas were really helpful and productive, especially because she knows what I like. I don’t think I could have shot this with anyone else. 

P: What was your first zine about ?

V: I’ve been making zines since I was about 4 years old. Though I didn’t know the word yet. Lots of messy collages of animals cut out of magazines, glued onto coloured paper and stapled together with a zillion staples. I think I might do one like that again now. 

P: I remember you were also invited to be part of the Nylon Japan issue Now and Forever, it really excites me to have shared that space with you. And I know your book release will happen in a Japanese bookstore, can you tell us a little more about your relationship with Japan? What do you like the most about that magical place?

V: Thank you. I love Nylon Japan. And yes I just released my new book in Tokyo with a show at Bookmarc in Harajuku. They have a super cool gallery and my show is running alongside Marc Jacobs ‘Heaven’ collection which works nicely. It’s hard to explain my connection with Tokyo. It’s the most mysterious magical place I’ve ever been. I love the food, the architecture, the youth culture, the street style fashion and crazy mix of Hello Kitty x goth x marshmallows or whatever it is that month. It’s so original and inspiring. When I was a kid I used to buy Rock Show and Music Life at the Japanese bookstore in midtown manhattan. I’ve always had a fascination with the Japanese take on British and American pop cultures. They mix it up with a flavor all their own.I have an amazing group of friends in Tokyo and Osaka who I miss so much at the moment. I cannot wait to get back there!!!!!!!!

P: I can see a constant feeling of evoking adolescence and teenagers in your work, can you tell us why? 
V: Much of my work has a somewhat autobiographical flavour to it. I’m still interested in the things that influenced me as a kid….punk/post punk, painting, collage, vintage & streetwear, sneakers, outerspace, conversations, breakfast cereal. Many of the girls/women I photograph are in their 20s. People think they look young because I like limited make up, if any, and messy bedhead hair. The girls look like themselves throughout. When I shoot a book, the styling is a collaborative process between myself and the girl. Lots of interesting charity shop finds, vintage, sportswear, things from my collection (especially Adidas and Doc Martens), things from theirs, and a bunch of blingy mix n match. When I first shot Arvida she brought over some amazing things in her suitcase…bright pink trackie bottoms, cut off denim shorts with purple paint and glitter, a beaded necklace that said “cunt”, nipple tassels…it was genius. I pretty much fell in love on the spot:)!!
I dislike most conventional fashion imagery because the clothing is designed for middle aged rich women, modeled by 15 year olds made to look thirty. It’s overly fussy and pseudo sophisticated. The models generally have too much make up caked on and some ludicrous hairdo and appear bored out of their brains. All things that look ugly and dated to me. 

P: Can you give us some recommendations?
Valerie’s recommendations

Books: The Lover – Marguerite Duras  
Betrayal – Harold Pinter (a play)          
Breakfast At Tiffany’s – Truman Capote          
Utopia Parkway the life and work of Joseph Cornell – Deborah Solomon
Movies: Harold and Maude – Hal Ashby           
Eighth Grade – Bo Burnham           
The Ice Storm – Ang Lee           
Lost In Translation – Sofia Coppola           
Bully – Larry Clark           
All About Eve – Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Songs: Another Girl Another Planet – The Only Ones          
Religion – Public Image Ltd.          
Giant – Banks and Steelz          
Plainsong – The Cure          
My Curse – The Afghan Whigs          
TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME – the 1975          
Eight Miles High – Husker Du          
Sixteen Again – Buzzcocks          
Motorcycle Emptiness – Manic Street Preachers          
Rid Of Me – Pj Harvey
Artists: Dante Gabriel Rossetti         
Joseph Cornell         
Gary Panter         
John Porcellino         
Ragnar Persson         
Henry Darger         
Alexander Calder         
Alberto Casais         
Joe Andoe         
Corinne Day         
Sally Mann
Place: Tokyo

P: What are your future plans? ( we are honestly super excited!)
V: I’m working on several books & zines at once – the usual chaotic status. I have work that’s finished and ready to be published, other projects in various stages of completion, and a few I’m just starting. Lockdown has been good for sorting through shoots and archives and re-editing existing work. Lots of exciting things to put into the world…

to see more of Valerie’s work visit here.