May 30, 2014

Spotlight: Valerie Phillips
Valerie Phillips is just making it up as she goes (and it's totally working).

When I was in my early teens, I read a lot of magazines. I was one of the most media-saturated kids on the block (or the continent). I remember one day stumbling across an ad that was different, that excited me. It was for Dr. Marten’s, and featured a pale and athletic Daisy Lowe wearing very nondescript clothes; just white shorts and a tank top, her legs flung up into the air with a pair of white leather boots on her feet. I loved that advert. It made me go out and buy my very first pair of DM’s. I had no idea who created that image until I dug a little deeper into Valerie Phillips' work and came across it in her archive. I found others too, campaigns I had seen and loved over the years, never thinking I would one day get to interview the woman behind them all.

She needs very little introduction. She has done ads for Nike, Reebok, Urban Outfitters, Virgin, Paul Smith, Stussy, Converse and many, many more. Her work has been in every major fashion magazine around, and she contributes regularly to my all-time favorite, NYLON; she makes zines, album covers (including a Manic Street Preachers cover) and pretty much everything she touches turns to awesome. I got to chat with her between shoots, and the DM-wearing teen in me couldn’t be more psyched.

THE LE SIGH: Describe a regular day in the studio – what's your creative process?

Valerie Phillips: I don't have a typical day. When I go into my studio I'm rarely there before noon and I stay quite late. I like to work in the evenings best. And on my own. I put on my iPod, loud, with headphones and sit on the floor printing out my images on a photocopier, assembling projects in sketchbooks with double-sided tape, trying to work out what books and zines I want to release. By about 5 p.m. this usually involves chocolate, green apples, almonds and a coke. I'm not really interested in stopping for meals. I just grab lots of snacks while I get on with making stuff. Sometimes I'm away on shoots. And sometimes I just go to Mario's Cafe near my house to drink coffee and think up ideas for stuff I want to make. It’s especially good for procrastinating by arguing about football with the regulars all afternoon.

TLS: Whose work first made you want to be a photographer?

VP: Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Truman Capote and lots of outsider art I saw as a child and still love.

TLS: You've worked with Florence Welch quite a bit; how is she to work with and who are some of your favorite people to shoot?

VP: Florence was great to work with and really up for doing fun, spontaneous pictures. Her stylist Aldene Johnson is one of my good friends, so it was very easy and relaxed working together with both of them. We just made it all up as we went along. Always my preferred working method. I’ve always really loved working with Pj Harvey and the Manic Street Preachers. And I spent one of my favorite shoot days with Sienna Miller. I also like taking pictures with my friends, Juliet Elliott - a pro cyclist, and Chi who I cast on a plane from New York to London. Of course I love working with Arvida Bystrom (from my new book hi =you are beautiful how are you?) And all the girls from my previous books! There are so many incredible girls, all of whom have been integral to the pictures I’ve made: Staz, Anja, Stacy, Natalia, Kemp, Rosie, Francesca, Charlotte, Kristine, Chloe, Jane, Isabel, Rachel. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t care if someone is famous or if I met them on the street. I always know instantly who I want to shoot.

TLS: What do you look for (or really appreciate) in a model?

VP: I like smart, funny, feisty girls (and the occasional guy) who really like to participate and add something special to the project rather than just sit around looking pretty. Girls who I can spend long stretches of time with and have great adventures making pictures.

TLS: Fashion photographers have a reputation for shooting women a certain way, either as lifeless objects or purely sexual creatures. And yet we have more successful female photographers now than ever before. How do you like to see women shot?

VP: I’m not at all interested in how other photographers work. If I thought about it, I’d say the biggest crime many so called "fashion" photographers commit is plagiarism. I don't tend to look at much fashion photography; it's pretty uninspiring to me. I prefer to concentrate on my own work. The only thing that matters to me is how I portray people. It really does not concern me what others do.

TLS: What advice would you give to a young woman that wanted to do what you do?

VP: Make your own work. Don’t copy stuff you see in style mags. It’s already been done. Don’t get caught up in other people’s bullshit and insecurity. Make the pictures you love and find your own way of doing things. Be original, and be nice.

TLS: What is your favorite part of your job? 

VP: My favorite thing is editing my books and zines. I also love casting. And I especially love shooting in my home city and getting to sleep in my own bed with my boyfriend at the end of a long hard day.

TLS: A really geeky question here, but I'm dying to ask. What's your set-up? What camera do you use? Do you have favorite lenses and other pieces of kit you're never without?

VP: I have a Nikon D800, a bunch of Lumix point and shoots, and a big collection of polaroid cameras which I haven’t used in a while. I don't place much importance on equipment. I think whatever allows you to make the pictures you want to make, is what you should use.

TLS: How would you describe your style to someone who's never seen your work before?

VP: A reality based, super-spirited, colorful, bullshit-free zone.

TLS: Is there a photo you've always been afraid to take, or one that has eluded you? 

VP: I've been wanting to do a book with Britney Spears for ages. So far that has eluded me. Having said that, I've not really tried very hard to put this plan into action. So, Brit if you're listening, check out my work and let's do some pics together! 

Check out more of Valerie’s work here

Holly Cassell, an artist and blogger who loves to travel and has a longstanding love affair with hotels. Her floor is always covered in glitter. She writes about her world here.