‘Un-sanitised for your protection!’ The colourful photographer-model duo explore IRL beauty in their latest photo book
Valerie Phillips is the self-confessed Peter Pan of the photography world. With a long-lasting love of ephemera from her youth (stickers, outsider art and zines), who better to pair her with, for her seventh photo book hi you are beautiful how are you, than cyber princess, photographer, model and fellow lover of all things colourful (especially hair) and nostalgia (think candy necklaces and jelly jewellery), Arvida Byström. “I asked Arvida to show me some of her clothes and favourite possessions – things she might bring to London for our shoot – and she held up a bright pink tracksuit and a pair of nipple tassels. I’d describe that as the perfect introduction,” remembers Phillips, who initially met the rainbow-haired beauty on Skype before flying her out to London to shoot, what would turn into, a two year journey producing four projects together.
The result is an honest portrait of a young woman subverting the normalcy of beauty courtesy of Phillips’ ‘undiluted’ method, as she calls it, which prefers to present women as they are – whether that's body hair on display, occasionally unwashed or without make up. “People have always thought the girls and women in my pictures are younger than they are, because they are usually having a good time. They don’t look overly groomed, bored or depressed the way women are portrayed in most fashion imagery.” As we preview a selection of images from the book, as well as a series of outtakes, ahead of Phillips’ book signing tomorrow night at London’s Claire de Rouen Books, below we chat to the dynamic duo about getting asked for ID, the importance of touching a nerve and the notions of true beauty (if there are any).
How did you two meet – was it love at first sight? And what drew you to document it?
Arvida Byström: Well, I had a friend telling me about Valerie when I had a distressed conversation about not knowing what to do with my life – maybe I should move to London and assist some photographer or something – and she told me that maybe I should talk with Valerie. I didn’t even get a chance to check out Valerie’s work out before she called and wanted to shoot me. That wasn't really my intention at the time, but I came over to London and now two years later we are good friends! So, I’m very happy.
Valerie Phillips: We met on Skype and, for me, it was kind of love at first sight. It was completely obvious to me after the first 10 minutes together in real life that I’d happily photograph Arvida as often as we could get together. I’m interested in what real life looks like. A beautiful and obvious thing for me to celebrate and document. Of course, I present my version of her life, but not so that it becomes fantasy. I guess in some ways the book is about both of us.
How do you feel feminism informs your work?
Arvida Byström: I'm interested in representation and femininity. I, myself, am queer. Sometimes this can show in my work, sometimes not.
Valerie Phillips: I don’t have a lot of time for bullshit or imposed limitations. If that aligns me with feminism, great. It’s important for me to put work out into the world, undiluted. Unencumbered by a conservative media trying to present everything, especially women, as a neatly packaged visual sound bite, like a .jpeg. A middle-of-the-road version of a much more interesting and complicated phenomenon.
Saying that, people find feminism a hard pill to swallow, even just talking about female issues – Arvida, you found this when you did your series on periods – although the images were empowering, people were shocked, angry and scared of them. Why do you think people still struggle to be honest about such things?
Arvida Byström: Because of loads of norms that capitalism is usually eager to keep intact. Like all the commercials about period pads and tampons and stuff, they never show blood. They use blue liquid to illustrate how it gets absorbed by the pads or whatever, and they’re like, "happy fresh women". But you know, there will be blood – it doesn't matter how much you wish there not to be.
In what some might say is a left field take on Western society’s idea of beauty – body hair is on display, Arvida admits to rarely washing her hair – why is it important to portray this otherside?
Valerie Phillips: It’s fascinating and more than a little depressing that in most fashion editorial and advertising, it’s taboo to show any kind of real humanity or sexuality. Why are people so scared of and/or repulsed by real life? A super high gloss faux version is fine, because it looks like sci-fi – it doesn’t touch a nerve. I’m just trying to make images I want to look at, that represent me and my point of view. I use the medium of books and zines to do this, where I have complete freedom. Un-sanitised for your protection!
“Why are people so scared of and/or repulsed by real life? A super high gloss faux version is fine, because it looks like sci-fi – it doesn’t touch a nerve” – Valerie Phillips
Valerie, your youth feels very much instilled in who you are today – how do you manage to keep hold of this and thread it throughout your work?
Valerie Phillips: It’s completely normal to me to lead a sort of Peter Pan like existence. I don’t have kids or the typical grown up trappings and responsibilities. I have arranged my life this way because it suits me and the way I like to work – to have a huge amount of freedom. I feel very connected to the things that influenced me growing up, and it would be impossible for those things I loved as a kid, not to seamlessly enter my pictures since they are still many of the same things – outer space, skate culture, zines, punk, outsider art, stickers, horses.
How do you feel about people who might think these images look too young? Arvida, I know you’ve come across this before when you were asked for a copy of your driver’s license to have some of Valerie’s previous photos printed?
Arvida Byström: I guess I do look pretty young at times, but it's also that thing that people in colorful clothes are perceived as younger. Or I get that sometimes, when I have no make up on and wearing colorful clothes and people think I’m 14. I’m like; “I’m 5'11. Do you really think I’m 14 just because I’m into pink?”
Valerie Phillips: I recently saw some comments on Facebook, accusing me of “playing a dangerous game with work like this”, and describing my pictures of Arvida – a grown up woman in her early 20s – as “sexually stereotyping young girls”. It’s insane. All this can be traced back to me showing a woman with little make up, unwaxed, occasionally unwashed, leading an interesting life, not in clothing sanctioned by the producers of daytime television.
Could you both tell me something that happened that we wouldn’t otherwise know?
Arvida Byström: Hahaha. I don’t know. We have very chilled hangouts. Maybe I got a bit annoyed when I tried to color my hair purple and it went blue, and Valerie laughed at me. Those photos are in the book I think.
Valerie Phillips: A lot of things made me laugh while making this book. Firstly, Arvida’s complete lack of enthusiasm, initially, when I offered to fly her to London to take pictures with me. Maybe it’s a Swedish thing, that cool nonchalance, it was just a really funny and unexpected reaction. We still laugh about it. And a lot of her emails made me laugh because they weren’t meant to be funny, but some bits were hilarious! Her unique phrasing and matter-of-fact tone, seeming indifference crossed with mega charm. We used fragments from our e-conversations in our zine This Is My Drivers License.
What is it that you both want to achieve, or put out in the world, with this photo book?
Arvida Byström: A book of a friendship is what it essentially is to me! I will always think about hanging out with Valerie when I see this book.
Valerie Phillips: I can’t top that, sorry!
Hi you are beautiful how are you is available now, published by Longer Moon Farther. You can also catch Valerie Phillips signing copies of her new book at Claire de Rouen Books in London on Wednesday 22 October, 2014.