Phyllis Ma captures the curiosity of traveling with alternative travel diary

Seeing as it’s tricky to travel at the moment, Phyllis Ma brings the delights of traveling directly to you in her new book.

18 September 2020

Welcome to a very special travel diary not quite like you’ve seen before. Touring Mexico City, Berlin, London, Tokyo and New York, this unique still life collection comes from the New York-based Phyllis Ma, a photographer we’ve met before on It’s Nice That. Previously, she shed light on the distinct personalities of mushrooms and now, she’s turned her creative capabilities on a unique still life project capturing the differing day to day objects of these five cities.

She calls these ordinary items “special nothings,” Phyllis tells us, “that under the right context can seem magical, surreal or even uncanny.” Fuzzy flowers nuzzle into each other in one image, while the smooth shape of an iPhone or a gherkin covered in warty bumps features in others. The photographer actually came up with the idea back in 2018 when wondering down a supermarket isle in Berlin. Passing a myriad of meats in processed forms (including slices of ham in the shape of teddy bears) Phyllis envisaged the refrigerated displays as a museum of strange artefacts.

In turn, the first series of still lifes took place in Berlin. It was a spontaneous shoot, proving to provide complimentary outcomes and from there, Phyllis experimented with the same format in different locations. A project that would result in a recently released publication, also titled Special Nothing. Working on the project in her free time during various work trips, she chose a city by its ability to create “something surreal out of something ordinary.” Each location offering the photographer an endless supply of inspiration in their vastness.

Two years in the making, for Phyllis, the book has been the her most spontaneous project she’s ever encountered while at the same time, “ironically,” she adds, “it’s also been the project that’s required the most planning.” A self-initiated experiment in slowing down creatively, allowing ideas to materialise organically without a deadline, Special Nothing is a photographic conversation between five wondrous cities over time. And an homage to the delicacies on display in each city’s supermarket.


Phyllis Ma: Special Nothing (Copyright © Phyllis Ma, 2020)

Collaborating with two friends later down the line, Houman Momtazian took on the design of the book while Erin Sheehy wrote an introductionary essay. With a glossy hardback cover and Swiss bound to boot, the introductory text provides some context without giving too much away on the project. Phyllis usually shies away from explaining her art too much, but with such vague images enveloped throughout the story, the essay became “a crucial grounding element” where Erin synthesised all the photographer’s experiences and inspirations into one piece of text.

Since travel is a no-go at the moment, Special Nothing is an alternative escape to the other side of the world. In one image, a rabbit nibbles on the underside of a watermelon under a tower of tropical wedding bouquets in Mexico City. This image in particular is one of Phyllis’ favourites from the series. “I love the subtle tension in the photo,” she says on the matter. The bouquets from a historical flower market are shrivelled in a state of suspended animation, she describes, while the rabbit was bought from a witchy market, Mercado de Sonoro where all sorts of live stock and bric-a-brac can be purchased. “I captured the split moment when its neck was contorted,” she adds, “bent around the curved edge of the watermelon.”

In another favourite image, a vibrant plate of watermelon, pineapple and Maraschino cherries are being eaten by maggots. Both images allude to the theme of un-staged decay, this one in particular, sees maggots being bred to feed pet frogs. “At first,” confesses Phyllis, “I was disgusted by the insects.” But when she researched further, her repulsion of the tiny squirming bodies covered in black hairs gradually dissolved. She discovered that maggots have great potential to breakdown food waste, a major cause of carbon emission today.

“If we can only get over our fear of bugs like many non-Western cultures,” says Phyllis, “we can realise creative solutions to tackling food waste.” And extending her thanks to the insects, the photograph captures her offering to the maggots, a delicious plate of beautifully arranged fresh fruit.

The photographer finally goes on to say of this vivid photography journal, if you can’t go anywhere at the moment, “maybe the book can be a reminder that everyday things – the “special nothings” in your kitchen or outside your window – can bring curiosity and happiness just the same.”

GalleryPhyllis Ma: Special Nothing (Copyright © Phyllis Ma, 2020)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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