“I would die on a sword for casting,” the photographer Valerie Phillips said in a cozy bar in New York recently. Although she now spends the majority of her time in London, where she lives in a labyrinthine house in the Kentish Town neighborhood, Phillips was born in New York; she still owns an apartment a few blocks away. “I don’t understand how anyone could not care about casting above all else,” she went on. “It’s just a gut-level emotional decision. There are loads of girls that I see who are stunningly beautiful and incredible, but they don’t move me. They don’t rearrange the molecules in my brain. When a girl does that it’s obvious to me within three seconds. It’s not just a visual thing, it’s a deeper, mysterious, weird connection that I feel toward them.”
Having become disillusioned with the fashion industry — she had been shooting editorials for magazines and campaigns for brands for the better part of two decades — Phillips decided to stop doing any commercial work whatsoever this year and focus on taking her own pictures when she wants, how she wants and, most importantly, of who she wants.
Her new book, Another Girl Another Planet (the title comes from a song by the post-punk band The Only Ones), just published by Rizzoli focuses on her wide-ranging portraits: her images of both celebrities (Sienna Miller, PJ Harvey), girls she discovered on the street, and everyone in between — all in her honest and undiluted style — are here together for the first time.
“I’m not that photographer who can turn up and be like, ‘So who are we shooting today?’” Phillips said. “My pictures can only be made with the girls that I feel that magic, and those crazy, mad-scientist vibes with.”
Here, Phillips tells the story behind four of the girls she really vibes with.
“I first met Staz on a casting for a Stüssy Japan job in L.A. I’d been seeing girls all day who were cute and pretty and blonde, and would’ve been passable. But I needed someone who was an absolute f--king rock star. We were almost done and this incredible girl walks in in some crazy-ass outfit. We all just looked at each other like, ‘I think we’re done here.’ We shot this picture at her apartment in L.A. On the casting I asked her what her room was like — I wanted to see pictures of it. We went to her house and she kept her sunglasses in a McDonald’s french-fry holder. I just thought, ‘Can I propose to you now?’”
"A friend first showed me a picture of Sara on Instagram and I was like, ‘Wait, can I see that again? I need to talk to her right now, right this second.’ That doesn’t usually happen with me. Through friends of friends I tracked her down and arranged a Skype call and was like, ‘When can you get here?’ Usually I like to go to their world more than bring them into mine but I was just like, ‘F--k it I need to start this. Can I fly you to London and shoot you?’ I flew her over a few days later.
"I went to pick her up at noon and she was held at immigration because she said she was here to do an art project. They detained her for nine hours while I was having to explain to various officials down the phone what art was and why it was different from commerce. Eventually, she was released into my custody for one night and I had to bring her back for an 11 a.m. flight. We got in a taxi and came back to my house and I was apologizing. And she was like, ‘No. F--k it. Let’s stay up all night and I’ll put on every single thing in my suitcase and we’ll make pictures.’ And I said, ‘Should we just make a book tonight? Because immigration said we couldn’t?’ It was a beautiful August night and everything was perfect. We stayed up all night running around Kentish Town.
"The title of the book, You Left Your Ring on the Floor of My Bedroom, came from me finding her ring the next morning, after I had dropped her back. I saw it and was like, ‘Oh my God, she actually was here. This really happened.’ Even now, I can’t talk about it without crying.”
“Monika literally changed my life. She’s the girl from my first-ever book. I saw her out of the window of my sister’s first-floor apartment in the West Village during the Halloween parade. I was eating candy corn, drinking a beer and I saw Monika in the crowd and was like, ‘OK, what’s the fastest way to get to her? I can either jump out the window or run down the stairs.’ I was trying to do a book at the time and didn’t know who it was going to be about until I saw her.
"The first book we made was called, I Want To Be an Astronaut. I’ve been obsessed with space since I was zero years old and I’d spent a year with Monika talking about every single thing on the planet. We were in an ice cream shop in Brooklyn and I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up and she said, ‘I want to be an astronaut.’ My brain exploded. I made her wear a space helmet for the whole day, on the bus, in McDonald’s, everywhere. We’ve kept in touch through every crazy f--king thing and now she’s like my sister. She’s grown-up with a child and lives in Colorado with her husband.”
PJ Harvey “I feel like with PJ Harvey I won the lottery, because she’s my favorite all-time artist, singer, writer, and musician. I worked with her a bunch of times and this shoot was in L.A. She actually taught me a really good life lesson. I had two ideas for a shoot — one set in the desert, and the other in a downtown motel. She picked the desert and when I told her we had to pick her up at 5 a.m. she said, ‘But my work hours are nine to six.’ I thought she was joking. I’d shot her so many times and was like, ‘Polly, it’s me! What are you talking about?’
"I realized that she’s taken a huge amount of control over the way she works so that when she’s there and you’re doing a shoot with her she’s on fire and she’s 100 f--king percent, but she’s doing it within her boundaries. At the time, I didn’t have any boundaries. I was working 24/7 and saying yes to everything but when I realized she was serious about not getting up early to drive into the desert I thought, ‘You know what? I really think about my life differently.’ Not long after that I stopped working on the weekends. I didn’t travel for a year. I not only took a leaf out of her book, I went really far with it. And by the way, we ended up staying in L.A. and they’re my favorite pictures of her that we ever made."