When I first met Valerie Phillips last year in Tokyo, she was promoting her latest book Alice in Londonland, a photographic document of model Alice’s careless wanders around the store fronts and snack bars of Greater London. Cut to now, and it’s a whole different world. “It’s weird to have a book that was all about my London and the freedom of that, and my next book to be about lockdown,” reflects Valerie – “There’s something eerie but kind of cool about that.”
I Had a Dream You Married a Boy, is the latest project by the New York City-born, London-based photographer. Released this month, the book features a series of photographs of long-time muse, Swedish artist Arvida Byström, all shot remotely by Valerie via Skype and FaceTime. The result is a uniquely intimate timestamp of friendship and portraiture, in the year 2020.
You’ve made four zines and two books now with Arvida. You two obviously have a strong relationship. How did it begin?
I met Arvida kind of randomly. She’s Swedish and she lives there, and I met her through another really good friend of mine who is the editor of Vice in Stockholm. She had mentioned to me that there was this girl I needed to meet, who wanted to come to London to assist. She was a photographer, just starting out and when I saw her and some of her work, her self-portraits, I just kind of fell in love with her and thought, “I just want to bring her to London to shoot with me”.
So, you were interested in shooting with her as a model?
Yes, so I Skyped her, and the funny thing is, because she’s Swedish and I’m American, there’s such a difference in the way we communicate. Americans are so effusive and over-the-top and Swedish people are so kind of calm and literal. And I’m thinking, “She’s 20, she’s going to be so excited I want to fly her to London…”, so I said, “Can I fly you to London, I’d love to shoot a project with you,” and she’s like “Well, that’s not really what I had in mind,” and I’m thinking “Damnnn. She kinda just kicked my ass.” It was really funny. We laugh about this so much now. Eventually I persuaded her.
And clearly you got along?
I invited her over for a few days and we shot some stuff and I think we just found it very easy to be around each other. We were very chill, very chatty, very natural even though we are both very different people. And now she’s an up-and-coming artist and does amazing work of her own – art, photography, fashion, everything – and her work is so different to mine. I think we’re a super odd pair and maybe it shouldn’t work but it just works so well it’s kinda nuts.
So, the closeness you have, did that help with this latest project?
Yes. So, when we shot this book, during lockdown, because she’s very technical, Arvida would go out to the woods and set up her computer and her phone and maybe a light even. I don’t think I could have done it with someone else who wasn’t as involved. She was really involved.
I think you mentioned that you were meant to have a road trip together but then it had to become something very different. You had to approach it working ‘socially distanced’, from London to Stockholm. How did you find that process?
I tell you something, after this it’s going to be hard to do anything else (laughs). Because it was so easy and so luxurious. Instead of having to run around and shoot in the street and change clothes in a bathroom, it’s just like “Hey, I’m going to just turn on my computer and hang out with my friend who I really miss and just talk shit for three hours and I don’t have to actually leave my sofa”. It was too good in a way.
I think you can really feel that intimacy in the images. The fact you can see your little face responding to her in the corner of the Facetimes, it really feels like the viewer is observing a conversation between friends.
That’s cool, that’s really nice. I hadn’t really thought about that and I think if I had thought about it, I might have put my hair in a ponytail or put some makeup on, but who thinks of that. You’re just slobbing around your house making work, and then I’m like “Oh, someone wants to blow this up to an A1 print? Okay, great.” (Laughs)
You often shoot with the same women and girls. It’s almost like a photographer/muse relationship, but to me feels more like a genuine friendship. I think it would feel different if you were a male photographer, for instance. If I saw a man’s face in the top right corner of a Facetime in these images, I’d feel weird about that.
Yeah, same. I think it’s really awkward to shoot and be around someone for a long period of time that you don’t have that ease with. That’s why I’ve chosen to do books with a few girls, and we’re very close. It’s quite an intense and intimate period of time when you’re shooting together. Even if you’re not doing anything super intense. Just deciding what you’re going to do that day, there’s a lot of trust and friendship needed. For me, it needs to be a really natural connection. I think that’s the commonality in all the books that I’ve made
You seem to work a lot in book form. Why is that?
When I was a kid in New York I was very influenced by this store called Printed Matter. I didn’t really understand it because I wasn’t really cool enough to know who all these artists were, but I just thought this is a shop full of amazing things that are so out of reach, and kind of weird, and inspiring, and crazy, and I was just mesmerized. And I just thought, this is what I have to do. I have to be part of this somehow. It wasn’t that conscious, but it was that kinda idea in my head.
I saw on your Instagram that you have a whole bookcase full of these sketch books that you’ve put together.
Let me show you, I have some of them here. [Valerie turns the screen to show the bookcase full of spines of sketchbooks].
Let me get one out, this is basically how I do all my books…. So, this is like a PJ Harvey one. Even if I’m just doing a shoot with a model or musician, I will make a whole sketchbook out of it in order to sort of unpack what that shoot was for myself. That’s kind of what I do with everything. Even some of my commercial jobs.
Why is that?
It’s like… I want to see it. If they’re just on hard drives I sort of think, “Well, so what? What have you done for the past five years? Where is it? Is it just hard drives in a box?” I can’t really live with that; I need to have something to show for all this – all this time and work and effort.
I understand that. Also seeing a series of images is very different to just seeing one isolated select. That’s something I really loved about the new book. Those screengrabs of all the pictures of Arvida in your iPhone gallery. I also loved that you kept in all the digital borders. Like you can see the time on your phone, and how much battery you have left. Why did you keep that in?
Because I just like the temporariness of things that end up being permanent. It’s the same reason I included the text messages between Arvida and I. The conversations that happen on text, they’re only meant for that one moment but for me they’re really special. I like those moments being locked into a printed document. That’s the kind of stuff that I enjoy and that I’m fascinated by.