Visuals / Interview
Wilhelm Philipp
Interview by James Whiting
Original photographs by Wilhelm Philipp
Portraits by James Whiting
Monday 30th October, 2017
Not too long ago, a girl came into my work wearing a t-shirt from small Melbourne label MPK - one from a collaboration between the label themselves and Melbourne-born-and-raised photographer Wilhelm Philipp. Barely breaking 20 years of age, he’s already holding an extensive client list beneath his belt, including the likes of Puma, Diesel, Crumpler and an array of booming local musicians. Anyway, I asked this girl where she got the tee from and she told me her friend ran the brand so she pretty much got it directly. I thought I’d try to act cool and connected in my customer banter, telling her I knew the photographer, to which she responded “Oh Wil?! Me too - I’m actually in the photo!”

Needless to say, I dropped off their coffees and walked away amazed, albeit slightly deflated. But I guess it serves me right - trying to piggyback off of a vague connection of my own, passing it on as some sort of gateway to a sort of exclusive ‘art’ culture. I should have immediately realised that if it was about Wil’s work, it’s not going to be any of that. It’s all love, hustle and love for the hustle, built from the ground-up. 

TJ: How is it to have your work out there in a bit more of a non-traditional sense? Like instead of a wall or a zine even, people are wearing your images.

WP: I don’t know hey. I feel like when I shoot, it’s more just like I want the photo to look how I want it to look, so at the end of the day if it looks like that it could be suitable for any sort of medium or outlet. I think that photo - it’s actually in an exhibition right now in No Vacancy Gallery. Every time I shoot I want every photo to be at this crazy standard so I feel like that image could have been in zine, on a wall where it is now - it’ll fit where it needs to. But a t-shirt is definitely very different because people walk around in it. I didn’t know if it was gonna be too graphic for people to wear, and that was the whole point of sort of distorting it. But people are hyped on it.

So before we get into this, some background would be sweet. How old are you and where in Melbourne are you from? And what did you do growing up?

I’m 20 and I’m from Box Hill. I’ve lived in the same little radius of a couple of kilometres my whole life, so I know that little spot real well. As a kid I was really sporty - my dad loves sport, I love sport. Just going to school in that area theres lots of community events. But not really artistic events, more sporting days and those kinds of things.
I did draw a lot as a kid though. Like Dragon Ball Z figures and stuff but they’re not the kind of thing you’d look back at and be like ‘Oh that’s kind of cool!’, it’d be more like ‘Oh, you were a 6 year old kid’. I guess it was just because when you watch it, it was already a cartoon, it was already a drawing, so I was like ‘Oh, if they can make it all move I can make a still of it.’ It was just fun. But artistically, nothing until, I’d say Year 11, was I even thinking of any of that stuff.

So art or photography wasn’t really present? Did you study photography in high school or anything?

I did that photography-media class in Year 9 but it was all crappy digital cameras and we were only allowed to walk around the school to shoot - and not even at lunchtime when people are out doing anything. I thought it was a bit of a joke. I’d usually just meet up with my friends and talk the whole time. I learnt a few things on Photoshop then but forgot it all by the time I needed it in Year 11. In Year 12 there was Art where you could just choose your medium, so I chose photography. But I haven’t done any courses and haven’t learnt anything professionally other than just being around photographers while they’re shooting.

Do you think that has impacted your process at all? I imagine having not been put into a kind of curriculum-based framework in order to approach image making has pushed you to make your own whole plan of attack. Maybe one that’s more unique to yourself and the people or ideas you directly interact with?

I think it can make it a longer process sometimes because I’ll shoot things and they won’t come out how I’d want, or what I’d envisioned is not anywhere near the final product. But at the same time I learn that I’m definitely never doing that again. The whole trial and error process just allows you to see all the different aspects that could be used in an image and after a few years I’ve finally started working out what I do want to use in an image and what I don’t. It’s more for me about the context and the image. Like how the subjects placed, how they look, the light shining on them, and that kind of stuff is my first thought. Actual framing and the atmosphere of it - making sure it’s not too statue like. I think it definitely has impacted my style though because I’ve just had to try so many things, and through that I’ve found out a lot.

I feel that if you’re coming through a university background you learn what a good image is like - a good image is lit like this, it’s sharp like this, your histogram is this, your ISO is this - and then you’ve got a good image. But depending on your practice, the first thing you learn once you graduate is like, that’s all bullshit. You can forget all of that and start to cater to what’s more true to the actual subject, and that that’ll blow everything else out of the water.

For me it’s totally about what’s in the image. If I’m doing street stuff, I’ll keep my eye on the settings but the main thing for me is capturing whatever it is that’s really happening.

Was there anyone along the way that you’ve seen that just makes you want to jump on a camera?

Yeah, definitely Nic Ojae. When I started around year 9 or 10 - that’s when I first heard about Ruler WURC through a mate and Ojae was hanging with that crew. I think they interviewed him or posted some of his work one day, maybe it was his Morocco series, and just going through his website, I was just seeing all of this stuff that I’d never really seen before. That really got me into it. He was from Melbourne but he was shooting all of this stuff - like when I think of the city I didn’t think you could see these things. Also seeing his colours and framing, and how he’d shoot places that haven’t been explored too much. And if they had, they hadn’t been shot too well. The bodies of work just flowed so well. He was probably the first dudes to really get me into it and make me want to push for that level of quality, and for the content to be so authentic and natural.

It’s sick you say someone like that though, because back then I imagine he wouldn’t have been that big of a name and more of a local connection, which I think is really interesting stuff because you have a sort of relevance to a person. As opposed to them being a sort of figure up in the clouds and on billboards, you can actually relate to someone through something whether it’s a hometown or anything. It sets up a much better foundation to learn from.

With him it was like, he’s from my city, he’s only a few years older, he’s hanging out with people that my friends know. That to me meant that maybe if he could do it then I could do it - and if he can do it in this city then maybe I can meet him. And actually that did happen and now we’re friends, and he’s off doing even crazier stuff. It’s great because he’s his own brand now in a way but he doesn’t have to sell himself or push it on anyone.

That’s a really interesting point though, because I feel like there’s a line in how you conduct yourself between pushing an agenda and purely sharing a unique quality or knowledge with someone.

Yeah it’s crazy now because with Instagram with all the new add-ons, sponsored posts and whatnot, it’s becoming a lot more corporate which is a bit unfortunate. It’s definitely going to help some people but it’ll take a away from the artists that are more in the underground scene. It’s hard because from that you kind of do need to push yourself out there a bit harder. I did try that a bit here and there, but now it’s back to being like - I shoot the work if I like it, I put out the ones that I like and for the reason I like it. I think that maybe if I back it, there’ll be a few other people that feel the same. There’ll be a few that don’t and that’s totally fine. I don’t really care about the followers or anything, I just care about my work being at a level where people that I respect see it, and either have criticism that’s constructive or they back some of it in some way.

From what I can see you seem to be pretty drawn to or engaged with a very strong upcoming generation of DIY labels and musicians. Is that something you've always been interested in or connected to?    

I’ve definitely been connected to it. When I first started trying to push my work I met a friend of mine Michael who had a small brand at the time that he was just running himself. I met him and he introduced me to the whole local streetwear scene. So I’d help him and shoot his look books and he’d ask me about designs to get my feedback. I guess he would just go around to events in the scene to talk to people and meet them, and through that I could just do the same and meet all these people and get my foot in the door. But those were my first shoots, and looking back on them, they weren’t the best (laughs). Like I was shooting with a fisheye and on digital which I guess was the way at the time. I guess it started with that and another small brand saw it and asked me to do something for them, and it went from there. Most of the people that I worked with were either just starting out and didn’t really know the direction they wanted to take it, or they do. And it’s cool if they do because I can follow their vision, and if they don’t I can help them develop something. It’s really cool to sit down and talk about their designs and give ideas, and then shoot and try to build these concepts. It’s cool to have that sort of creative control instead of people being like ‘Okay, we back whatever you want to do’ which even though it’s great to have that sort of backing and blessing from people, it’s really daunting.

The style across all of your work is really quite seamless but I imagine obviously as the brief or subject changes so does the approach and intent. Are there certain places or directions you’re trying to push personal work to?

I think this year, since it’s my first year solely freelancing, it’s been a lot more trying to find client work. Or I guess I’ve been lucky enough for it to usually find me. So a lot of my time is dedicated to that, which has caused my personal work to get a bit cut out, especially since a lot of that work wasn’t turning out. So if I get any free time I’ll take my camera and walk around the city to try and make something happen. My personal work is really me just trying things that I haven’t tried yet.

And really all of someone’s work, no matter what it’s purpose is, one way or another it goes into the world as an extension of themselves…

Yeah, because at the end of the day, how would you get to shooting client work without shooting personal work? No one starts with client work. You start with just shooting whatever you think is cool, and then someone might see it and ask you do it for them because they back you enough. For me I just love people and portraits and capturing things that are happening around them. People are so unique and you can photograph anyone, that’s the thing. It’s not like a landscape and they’re the same after a while. When I’m shooting street stuff, there’s an unlimited amount of of models.

Is more street photography the next sort of work that’s on your horizon?

I just love street stuff. That must be one of the first things that really pushed me into photography. And if I can get more comfortable shooting random people, it’ll just help my photography overall anyway. But just seeing New York back in the day and what they could capture is incredible. Melbourne is a kind of place where for me it’s tricky to photograph street stuff because of how much advertising is around on the walls and whatnot, but I feel like it’s yet to be really explored. There’s photographers in New York that have been smashing out a few rolls a day for 20 or 30 years and they’re getting really, really amazing images and I just want to see what I can do with it.