“Mushrooms are a lot like people, each one has a distinct personality.” These are the wise words of artist and photographer Phyllis Ma, who tells us about her wonderful photography series Mushrooms & Friends, capturing the delight of these fungal specimens. The series started last summer, but Phyllis’ interest in photography started around six years ago now, in 2014, when Phyllis and her college friend Josie Keefe started an Instagram account poking fun at the food trends in photography. While everyone else seemed to be documenting the refined plates of very expensive meals, Phyllis and Josie wanted to “push against” the grain, instead, photographing “cheap, processed foods in an absurdist and unappetising way.” Ironically, Phyllis tells It’s Nice That, “we got offered real gigs as food photographers” as a consequence of the self-initiated project.
Born in Guangzhou, China, Phyllis moved to the States when she was eight-years-old. Now based in New York, she originally studied fine art, followed by a stint in fashion design. While working as a window dresser, Phyllis started playing around with taking photos on the side. “It seemed a bit all over the place,” she explains, “but in retrospect, the different hands-on skills I’ve accumulated have very much informed the way I approach photography.” Naturally, over time, her personal work took a turn on sustainability.
It coincided with a visit to a mushroom farm in Brooklyn, and almost immediately, once she entered into the jungle of weird and wonderful forms, Phyllis was captivated. The blocks upon blocks of mushrooms growing under blue light were fascinating, spurring an interest in foraging outdoors and learning about fungi in general. Phyllis continues: “It’s fascinating how important they are to recycling and ecology.” And, to top it all off, they’re also “beautiful and fun” to photograph.
So far, she’s foraged species from New York and Berlin which she then photographs in statuesque poise, contrasted against vivid backdrops and bright lights. She tells us of her favourite spots to forage. In New York, her best-loved spot is Green-Wood, a Victorian cemetery in Brooklyn. By contrast, in Berlin, it’s the Grunewald Forest, a mysterious place with an old NSA spy station from the Soviet era nuzzled into a manmade hill. “It’s creepy to look for mushrooms in places with so much hidden history,” says Phyllis, “I feel like the mushrooms are trying to tell me something.”
Through her study of mushrooms, the photographer has come to understand each species’ distinct personality. While some are shy, others are bold and brazen – and others can be pretty goofy. At present, her favourite species is blewits, otherwise known as Lepista Nuda. Growing predominantly in autumn, this species in particular has a flush of colours, varying from a deep, rich purple to a more gentle lavender. Highlighting the majestic beauty of such a tiny form, this is just one species that features in Phyllis’ photo zine, Mushrooms & Friends 2, set to be published on 21 February 2020.
Additionally, she is also set to publish a photobook titled Special Nothing, designed by the London-based design studio Ongoing Projects in May. It features a series of still lifes on regional foods and flowers, taken in five cities – Mexico City, Tokyo, London, Berlin and New York, representing part travel diary and in part, a “playful reaching to consumerism.”
GalleryPhyllis Ma: Mushroom & Friends
About the Author
Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.