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Secretly SusanPhebe Schmidt

Trip the light fan-plastic with these anti-beauty shots

Hyper-realistic, candy hued photographer Phebe Schmidt on critiquing the beauty industry and shunning the 'trendy' feminist artist label

Australian artist Phebe Schmidt is rethinking contemporary photography, with her standout visuals already inspiring collaborations with independent fashion labels (Per Tim, Kuwaii, Renee Farina, Seb Brown, Sui Zhen, Oscar Key Sung). Simultaneously producing her own creative output, her aesthetic also appears at Australia art/fashion pioneers such as Oyster mag and Pitch Zine, where she is a contributor. With European debut exhibitions in the pipeline, her work responds in its own way to the dichotomoy of our digital age pyschology, the allure and repulsion that co-exist when we consume images. On a literal level, this emerges via foodstuffs that form a motif in Schmidt’s work, and more subtly, the feeling is embedded in the jolie-laideur of her post-apocalyptic dystopia, where the everyday is given an indelible plasticity. It’s as if an insightful alien has imagined human life.

She answered some questions from her studio in Melborne which we’re happy to report back with an exclusive image launch.

What’s your background? Where do you work?

Phebe Schmidt: I grew up in Brisbane and moved to Melbourne when I finished school to study a Bachelor of Arts: Photography at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, which is a commercial photography course. I work from my studio in Brunswick East.

What’s informed/inspired your aesthetic style?

Phebe Schmidt: Sci-fi inspires and informs my aesthetic style; in particular, the visual elements such as bright colours, hyper-real landscapes and interiors that materialize as imagined futures that make no attempt to be credible. I am an obsessive trekkie and particularly drawn to how mood and atmosphere is created through lighting and colour grading. Of course I am addicted to the characters and the ongoing exploration of space and alien worlds. Other sci-fi influences such as Cronenberg’s early work (Existenz, Videodrome) and anime films such as Akira reflect an interest in mutation and often-monstrous reinvention.

What’s your working method – can you talk through how you arrive at a final image?

Phebe Schmidt: I am constantly on the look out for props for my own work and client-based work. On a recent trip to Japan I bought a number of props that I’m really excited about and can’t wait to use.  When working for a client I put together a proposal with mood boards, reference images, storyboards and sometimes I test shoot so the client can visualise what I have in mind. I also tether during shoot so the client is part of the process and ensures they are happy with end result. My own work is more experimental and improvisational and I have more time to put together a composition, but I still plan meticulously, organising props, models, planning out each shot.

"It seems to me that this feminist thing is a trendy way to describe any work that critiques the beauty industry. What, in fact, we’re critiquing is the way beauty is marketed, objectified and how its parameters are prescribed, which is more about our visual culture."

Your work is very textural, exaggerating the materiality of objects, often emphasising their viscerality, their grossness, their horrifying aspects. You make a donut look bloody. A slab of spam looks like a chopped up dick. Etc.

Phebe Schmidt: My approach is to develop dark and disturbing undertones masked by a superficial brightness and cheesy lightness, and through this process reinscribing images with an alternative narrative and ambiguity.

Your work is also highly stylised in terms of colours and compositions – does this ever constrain you?

Phebe Schmidt: Yes it is an explicit constraint and method of creating a framework that then frees me to focus on the process and play with subject/objects and props. Also conceptually and visually it works to thread my work cohesively.

Where do you get your ideas? Do you use references? Is there a narrative thread behind a typical shoot?

Phebe Schmidt: I am constantly researching for historical and contemporary visual references, gathering images such as quirky and kitsch advertisements of an exaggerated smile or unrealistic representation of a product, stills from films such as Fifth Element and Akira, and fashion by designers like Walter Van Beirendonck to name just a few. When working for a client I will put together references that reflect the stylistic theme I am aiming for. Generally there is a narrative thread to all my shoots and I enjoy creating an artificial reality that emphasises a stylized plasticity and bright surface.  

Talk us through the latest collab with Kuwaii footwear?

Phebe Schmidt: I really enjoyed working with Kuwaii and I love the simplicity and beauty of their products. I had a vision for this shoot and chose a combination of blues and creams for the set. Like most of my client projects, prior to shooting, I accumulated props ranging from a blue plastic mouthguard holder to vintage picnic wear. Kristy Barber (Founder/Designer) and Laura Albee Barton (Brand manager) collaborated with me on each composition, positioning the props and shoes, which was a really positive experience.

"The idea that social media is used as a measure of success and the obsession with likes and followers intrigues me."

I notice too you work often with food – juxtaposing it with faceless/dead human figures. Are you repulsed by food?

Phebe Schmidt: No I am fascinated by food, but I am interested in creating an alternate concept of what it can be – unattainable and artificial – rather than a form of sustenance or pleasure.

There emerges a kind of contradiction – this making all objects appear repulsive, consumption of theme being disgusting, almost – but then shooting to sell those items?

Phebe Schmidt: My aim is to initially draw the viewer in with bright cheesy colours and curious props together with the profiled product, but on second glance they realise that something is not quite right, a melting block of cheese or an oddly shaped mannequin bust. I believe this form of disruption is an effective way of creating a memorable and dynamic image.

You’ve only exhibited in Melbourne so far, where’s next?

Phebe Schmidt: I am currently working towards an exhibition in Berlin and have had initial discussions with one of the gallery’s curators. I am also working on an upcoming collaboration with WIA (Italy) that will also include a publication.

I read the piece about your work on Pitch zine (perhaps you could also speak about that project? And your involvement in it). It frames your work within feminist discourse but you seem reticent about it – do you have a political motivation?

Phebe Schmidt: It seems to me that this feminist thing is a trendy way to describe any work that critiques the beauty industry. What, in fact, we’re critiquing is the way beauty is marketed, objectified and how its parameters are prescribed, which is more about our visual culture. Many feminist photographers are just using those same techniques.

Yes I am reticent about framing my work within a feminist discourse or aligning myself with any movement at this stage, and no I don’t have a political motivation. However, I am interested in the pressure to conform to gender, social and cultural norms and how we are all trapped by homogenised, generic ideals of beauty and sexuality. Part of my approach is to disrupt and challenge this constriction and oppression.

Do you align more with commercial photography or fine art?

Phebe Schmidt: I think both, although from a technical point of view my approach is commercial.

Any Australian artists you recommend?

Phebe Schmidt: Polly Borland (fav Australian photographer), Yvonne Todd (actually from NZ), Claire Lambe, and Polly Joannou. Reviewing my recommended artists, they are all women J

How do you feel about social media?

Phebe Schmidt: The idea that social media is used as a measure of success and the obsession with likes and followers intrigues me.