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.