this photo series captures the slow pace of suburban adolescence

Valerie Phillips only needed two things to make her zine 'We Smell Like Time': an amazing girl and a cool place to stay.

by Claudia Tilley
28 June 2018, 9:06am

London-based photographer Valerie Phillips’ latest zine We Smell Like Time documents the natural beauty in adolescence through an effortlessly cool girl named Viv. We Smell Like Time came about when Valerie’s sister ask her to come hang in Colorado for a while. She told her sister she needed two things: a cool place to stay and a girl. Within a day her sister had found both and Valerie set off for a month to photograph fourteen year old Viv, who had just moved from LA to Boulder. Similar to her previous publications Valerie captures an unfiltered girlhood: messy hair, tongue out, eating cereal from the box, bedroom and street hangs.

The zine conveys the slow sense of infinite time we feel only in our adolescent years. Valerie notes this was not an intent but something which occurred organically. Looking at the final images they remind her of those lazy long holidays, where you make the days schedule up as you go, and time stretches out and you feel like it is five years long. We spoke to Valerie about zines, photographing in a particular style and the current state of the fashion industry.

What has made We Smell Like Time different from your previous work?
I don’t necessarily think any of my work differs vastly. There is something I really fundamentally love to find engage with, and that becomes a constant in my work. We Smell Like Time was in Viv’s world and about her. But it was also about being in Colorado for a month and trying to work on something exciting and meaningful.

For this project you said you needed two things: a cool place to stay and an amazing girl to photograph. When did you realise Viv was that girl?
Probably the first day I met her. When I was a teenager I was a massive skateboarder and a complete tomboy. Viv reminds me of myself when I was that age.

Did the title come from Viv?
It came about from a completely separate incident. I was hanging out with nephew who is four years old. I was wearing this lavender perfume and he was wearing something that smelt good. He said “we smell like time,” I thought wow that is pretty heavy concept for a four year old. And I pointed to my watch, and he was like “no we smell like thyme.” I realised he meant the herb. What the fuck! I don’t even know what thyme smells like.

When you are photographing new subjects you haven’t met before, do you spend a certain amount of time with them before you start shooting?
I don’t think there is a set answer, it depends on the situation. I generally gravitate towards people who I know I am going to have a bond with and the relationship is going to be comfortable and open.

You have been publishing zines and books for over a decade now. Why do you think zine culture is having a moment right now?
Thank god it is because it’s brilliant and it makes me so happy. Anything that democratises the industry is amazing. You will always get loads of shit but you will also get loads of amazing weird, maverick things.

Is it hard making sure your commercial photography able to be in the same style as your books and zines?
I won’t work for anyone where I can’t do what I do. I have taken a break from commercial work because clients are being such cautious assholes at the moment. Everyone is being so safe, won’t let you make anything amazing. So I will make it myself.

Is this super cautious attitude particularly evident in the fashion industry?
Yes, it is in a shockingly bad state at the moment. Everyone is really scared of spending money. They keep costs down by ensuring the work is going to appeal to the broader demographic, which means they have to overestimate people's stupidity and inability to be excited by the weird and cool. People actually want to see interesting and cool shit, but clients and ad agencies want to sanitised things for your protection. But I couldn’t get up in the morning and make what I do if that was my philosophy. It would be too depressing.

This article was originally published on i-D AU.
We Smell Like Time