Photos of a wet, hot Mexican summer
In his new book 'Baja C.S.', Phoenix Johnson uses the body and natural landscape to visually transport us to the seaside town of Todos Santos.
Photography Phoenix Johnson
Todos Santos, Mexico, has long been an idyllic haven for artists and travelers alike. Tucked between beaches on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, the small town on the Southern edge of the Baja California peninsula is known for its relaxed vibes and breathtaking natural landscapes, making it an ideal place to while away a hot summer day.
It’s this sense of beach town utopia that brought New York-based photographer Phoenix Johnson to Todos Santos in July 2021, with his girlfriend Milena Gorum and their friends Eric Lawrence and Julia Cordova. Over email, Phoenix said that the town — considered to be one of Mexico’s “pueblos mágicos” — had a different feeling than “other places [he] had visited in Mexico”, with its mix of serenity and beauty. He began taking photographs on his trip of his companions, the coast and everyday still-lifes of the objects around them. Over the course of a week, Phoenix’s documentation of his vacation grew into a full-scale collaborative project with the help of Milena, Julia and Eric, who owns the accessories and lifestyle brand Odessa 1919.
Seeing as many of the objects Phoenix captured were Eric’s products, the two decided to turn a selection of the images into Baja C.S., an artbook produced by Odessa 1919 that mixes images of the brand’s leather goods and sunglasses with Milena and Julia posed nude amidst the town’s hidden resorts and shores. “There wasn’t a set intention to start working on a book, but as the body of personal work grew from the trip we felt compelled to start curating it into what’s now Baja C.S.,” says Phoenix. “The concept of releasing an ‘aesthetic’ book for Odessa quickly felt like the natural thing to do” as the project evolved.
Now available on Odessa 1919’s online shop, the complete project is luxurious, heady and sensual — both in terms of its frank sexuality, and invocation of the sensory experience of being in Todos Santos. Next to colorful shots of Odessa 1919’s inventory and everyday trinkets Phoenix saw traversing the city, the book uses the human body and the landscape to transport the viewer to Mexico. With his camera, Phoenix is incredibly adept at capturing textures, light and movement in a way that turns his photographs into a full-immersion sensory experience. Take, for example, a shot in which Milena and Julia — bikini-clad and facing away from the camera — are walking into the ocean on a sunny day. The capture is blurry and taken from a low angle, as if Phoenix has been jostled around by the water in an attempt to get the shot. Other than the women, the only thing that breaks the blue background of sea and sky is the froth of an approaching wave. The image is so evocative of a beach day that you can practically smell the salt in the air. Baja C.S. showcases all the moments like those long, lackadaisical beach days that make spending time away from it all in the summer so magical. There are shots of silhouetted people dancing in the low light of the evening, dusty neon signs, and a full ashtray and empty glasses sitting in the full sun of the early morning, serving as a reminder of the night before.
In another series of photos, Phoenix captures Milena in the shower. With the last remnants of afternoon light streaming in from the windows, the pictures showcase a feeling of relaxation and contentment, as if she is washing off the sand and sweat from the day’s earlier escapades and getting ready for the evening ahead. In some shots, she is at a distance, but in others, she faces Phoenix directly. With her confident look and his arms caught in the reflection of the bathroom mirror, the image is both representative of this particular moment and their relationship, one that is enhanced by their joint artistic endeavors.
“Milena and I work together constantly, as a subject and as a full time collaborator,” Phoenix told me. “Whether it be jobs, personal work or editorials we are typically working together creatively in some capacity.” Milena — who, in addition to modeling, is a set designer and art director for clients such as Vanity Fair, Thom Browne and others — and Julia’s presence in the work makes Baja C.S. “extremely personal” because of these relationships. “I believe I work with most subjects collaboratively. I look to them for ideas or movements outside of the original guideline or situation I might propose.”
Like Milena, Phoenix has an impressive roster of clients: Marc Jacobs, The Real Real and of course, i-D, along with other impressive brands across the fashion and design spheres. Projects like Baja C.S. allow him to embrace visual storytelling and flex different creative muscles as “the process is definitely different.” For projects like this, “I have no guidelines, product or specific identity to uphold. I can express whatever I am feeling that day. When working with a designer or company, you are working to create something interesting that is a continuation of their identity. So with that, I feel it has to be a different approach, which is exciting and sometimes challenging. It pushes me in a different way than if I was just shooting my own work all the time.” Created on his own terms with friends, Baja C.S. leans into what Phoenix described as equal parts “beautiful” and “mundane” — creating a transportive vision of summer in all of its delicious, easy glory.