Rachel Phillips began photography while completing her undergraduate degree at Skidmore College. Her work has been included in numerous exhibitions and been published in American Photo, B&W Magazine, COLOR Magazine, and LensWork. In 2010, her series Field Notes was included in the Critical Mass Top 50. She will be an artist-n-residence in summer 2013 at Rayko Photo Center. Rachel lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.
View more of Rachel's work here
Ashley Kauschinger: What are your thoughts on the idea of home, family and ancestry?
Rachel Phillips: By temperament and instinct I tend to value continuity and stability, and my family has been the single greatest source of cohesion in my life. My parents still live in the house they bought when I was five. My paternal grandparents were a bedrock of my childhood—because I was homeschooled, I had the great fortune to be able to stay with them routinely for 3 or 4 nights every month or two. This gave me an intimate, extended, contemplative experience of them and an anchoring in family and history. They lived in a big, electric blue, somewhat derelict and entirely appealing old house I adored—it had secret passageways upstairs and forgotten boxes of family mementos. I don’t think my cousins, who appeared in great batches together for riotous holidays, had that same depth of experience I did. My grandfather will be 90 in March, and I still find comfort and joy in the routine of visiting him for dinner and a rerun movie now that he lives across the street from their old house in a senior apartment complex.
My mother’s family lived in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and a family trust owned about 400 acres of ranch land which my mom managed throughout my girlhood. Mom’s family is much smaller than my dad’s; both my maternal grandparents died before I was born, and she has one sibling to my father’s seven! So my experience of family on her side was more of legacy and history and names and geography than of people. Visiting the ranch with my mom, talking to farmers, riding the levees, watching the river, spotting the owls in the barn, hearing stories about her parents and grandparents who had been well-known in the small community, gave me an enduring interest in the ways we make a landscape personal and meaningful across time.
AK: Are you influenced by poetry and literature? Who are some of your favorite storytellers (visual and written word)?
RP: I don’t read nearly as much as I’d like to—the mornings are too busy, and I’m too tired by the evening. But I work teaching dyslexic children how to read, so I spend my days explaining language in a slow, exacting way. I also read and re-read children’s classics with my students year-after-year: Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, Rabbit Hill. Those books have influenced my work in terms of imagination and staging scenes, but also in how I represent the scale of things. Children’s books often present the world from a child’s or animal’s point of view, making the protagonist small in a large world; that notion of diminishing one’s own self—physically and egotistically—so as to be absorbed in the world around you, finds its way visually and philosophically into my pictures.
AK: Can you talk a bit about your methods? How do you mine for ideas? How important is alternative process to your concepts?
RP: Once a series is underway, I spend a lot of time thinking about individual images and oftentimes planning before I make them—imagining how to translate complex ideas and instincts into simple pictures. Much of my photography is staged to some degree, so there is the freedom of being able to include and exclude whatever you want within the frame. But with this freedom also comes the tremendous challenge of building something with grace and authenticity that resonates with the viewer.
Before I start a series, I putter around making things, making things, making things! I’m fortunate to have a group of friends that experiment with new processes collaboratively, and that exploration leads to serendipitous connections that only appear in hindsight. For much of my work, process does come first—a sense of having these wonderful materials, and wondering what to do with them. “Alternative” processes have been important to me because in learning ways to print photographs on non-traditional materials, like the old envelopes I’ve used the last few years, my paradigm about what a photograph can be as an object has expanded.
AK: What is your process of self promotion? What advice would you give to other photographers?
RP: I’m fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area where there is a large and active photography community, and I’ve found that the richest and most satisfying opportunities to bring my work into the world have come from networking locally and building personal connections over time. A friend gave me some great advice when he told me, “Don’t be that artist that shows up for their own opening, but doesn’t come out for anyone else.”