Valerie Phillips, Alice in Londonland

JTF (just the facts): Published by Longer Moon Farther (self-published) in 2019 (here). Softcover, 192 pages, with 180 color photographs. Includes texts by the artist. In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by Farrow. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/ContextValerie Phillips has been documenting girlhood, in all its nuances and complexities, for almost 20 years now. Her photographs capture candid, unfiltered, and raw beauty, from tousled hair and awkward poses to bare faces and unshaved bodies, as she celebrates the real life and energy of youth. She photographs girls at important moments of their lives, and has published their stories in a variety of zines and photobooks.

Phillips grew up in New York City, where she was interested in non-mainstream fashion, skateboarding, underground zines, and young designers, and would spend her nights at clubs seeing bands. She started shooting music images, she jokes, just to get free access to the concerts. Phillips went on to make a successful career photographing for music magazines and record companies, working with PJ Harvey, The Manic Street Preachers, Snoop Dogg, and many others. Eventually she moved to London, where she is now based. 

Alice in Londonland is Phillips’ tenth publication. She usually starts her projects with a person in mind – “I know in an instant who I need to make a book with.” Most of her publications focus on a single subject. Alice Vink is in the center of this project and Phillips takes her around London documenting their adventures. 

Alice in Londonland is unexpectedly heavy book printed on glossy paper. All of the photographs are in color and full bleed, creating a continuous visual flow. The cover image is a picture of a girl wearing a Hello Kitty tank top posed against a colorful wall of deli food advertisements; there is a blue frame around the portrait, which includes book’s title and artist’s name. She stares down at us, and this is Alice. The title of the book plays with a reference to the iconic children’s book Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; the characters even share the same name. The repeated use of blue in the book design might also be a nod to Alice’s famous blue dress. 

The book opens with an introduction by Phillips: the text is placed in various shapes (square, circle, rectangle) on a blue background. “Almost a year before we actually met, I saw one picture of Alice’s face and I knew. I knew we had to make a book. This book. A book about London, Alice and me”. Phillips doesn’t like to travel, and she even did an experiment one year, turning down all the jobs that required travel. Instead, she prefers to focus on being where she wants to be and right now, that is London. “Alice. A girl from someplace else, who would wander through London with unfamiliarity, ask unpredictable, interesting questions and make me laugh non stop. Silly, serious, calm and enthusiastic, seemingly all at once.” She takes Alice, her muse, on adventure around Kentish Town, exploring Phillips’ home surroundings in London.

The imagery begins with a close up portrait of Alice looking right back at us (like an introduction), paired with a wall covered with smiling emoji faces. And here starts their London adventure, as they spend days walking around the city, getting lost, taking pictures. They would stop at thrift shops, digging through one pound bins in search of fun clothing pieces. Then, Alice would change on the backstreets or in pie shop bathrooms as they continued walking around London, being silly, and making photographs. As we follow their walk, we can map some of Phillips’ favorite places: Mario’s Cafe, Pie & Mash Eels, Pang’s Fish Bar, and others.

In a similar manner to her other books, Phillips documents girlhood unfiltered – there are numerous shots of hoodie on, tongue out, impromptu sidewalk posing, fake moody, quiet introspective bedroom, and relaxed cafe looks. With just a few scene setting exceptions, Alice appears in nearly every photograph in the book; she often playfully looks back at us and is clearly aware of the presence of the camera. In one of the first images, she poses against the wall in her pajamas, and the following spread pairs two photos of her eating cereal, one with the letter “A” perched on her tongue; the design on her t-shirt, a smiling yellow flower with the word “HOLIDAY!”, seems to match her playful mood. Then we move to the streets of London, where Phillips documents Alice in unplanned and seemingly unstaged setups: she lies on washing machines outside a store, drinks coffee, sits on a red pillar box, lies on the grass, puts her socks on, and poses with dragons. 

Alice appears wearing various stylish teenage outfits: pajamas, a Hello Kitty dress, a bikini, a glittery orange shirt, a vintage punk outfit, various t-shirts, etc. The book is full of bright colors, especially red, and Alice’s outfits often match her surroundings. We see her eating a piece of watermelon, with its bright red color matching her red pants and sneakers, and another spread pairs a photo of Alice in a greenish shirt with flowers next to a rose bush and an image of a wall with a tile mosaic made up of green and flower elements. The pictures consistently find beauty and excitement away from the touristy streets of London. 

In many ways, Alice in Londonland shows us both an effortlessly cool girl and one who is surprisingly comfortable with (and aware of) her own awkwardness. The photobook is full of energy, innocence, and fun, expressing the slow pace of life which we can only experience during our youth years. The design decisions of the book cleverly reinforce its visual energy and mood. While Phillips deliberately mixes fashion motifs and looks into these intimate images, and often opts for strong colors and sassy performing, we shouldn’t underestimate her ability to simultaneously document teenage truths and vulnerabilities. Her work smartly highlights the importance of female representation and the female gaze, exploring both the overlooked determination of young women and their stories of still forming identity.

Collector’s POV: Valerie Phillips does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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