Phyllis Ma Interview
Phyllis Ma is a New York-based photographer working in still life photography and animation. She was a co-founder of LAZY MOM, a food art project active from 2014-2018. Recently she’s developed an obsession for foraging and photographing mushrooms.
We are fans of the project Lazy Mom so we were so thrilled to see Phyllis wearing our Cloud Jumpsuit in a feature on Vogue in 2019. Our outdoorsy inspired collection, Take a Hike, felt like the perfect opportunity to work with fungi forager, Phyllis.
Hey Phyllis, Happy New Year to you! How are you?
Happy New Year! I’m doing pretty okay, considering we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and there was an insurrection at the US Capitol last week. Thanks for asking!
Your work is fascinating and we are so happy with the outcome of the collages that you created for us and our Take a Hike collection. How did you get into foraging and photographing mushrooms?
I was interested in connecting my still life photography with sustainability, and mushrooms seemed like a perfect intersection. I visited Smallhold, an organic mushroom farm in Brooklyn and was inspired to create portraits of gourmet mushrooms.
Learning about cultivated mushrooms naturally inspired me to try foraging as well, and it really opened up a rabbit hole for me. As a climber and hiker, I’m often out in nature, but I had never paid close attention to mushrooms before. And anyone who’s a mycophile can attest: once you start noticing mushrooms, you see them everywhere. It quickly snowballs into a total obsession.
The collages for the Take A Hike collection were composed with photos from hikes and walks all around New York City. Identifying wild mushrooms can be confusing and tricky, and I often take a ton of photos in the field, hoping to capture all the characteristics necessary for a proper id. It was fun to remix the photos into collages for the collection.
How did you come up with ‘Special Nothing’ for the title of your book and a Instagram handle and what does it mean?
“Special Nothing” is what I call ordinary objects that, under the right circumstance, can seem magical, surreal, or even uncanny. This feeling is the driving force behind my work. And the phrase became the title for my book of still lifes made in Mexico City, Berlin, London, Tokyo and New York.
Do you have any words of mushroom love for any fungi-phobias out there?
I would reach across the aisle to these fungiphobes and ask, “Do you like bread? Do you like wine and beer?” If the answers are “yes,” they would be surprised to learn that baking, winemaking and brewing would not be possible without the work of fungi – in this case, the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. While these examples might not fit neatly under the “mushroom” umbrella, they illustrate how expansive the fungi kingdom is. Not all fungi have a stalk and cap like the Super Mario mushroom. In learning more about the world of fungi, any fungiphobe will find it hard to not be impressed by its fundamental role.
What is your favourite piece from our Take a Hike collection?
I love the Wilderness Dungarees! They look very comfortable and practical to wear on a foray.
Your new book Mushrooms & Friends 3 is coming out soon, can you tell us a bit about what it’s about and who the friends are?
Mushrooms & Friends 3 is the upcoming issue in my series of mushroom photography zines. This issue is quite distinct because it was shot during the pandemic last year and features all wild mushrooms from around New York City. The project inadvertently became my coping strategy during the quarantine.
The “friends” in the title refers to the way mushrooms form relationships with what’s around them – insects, trees, birds – as well as the community of mushroom enthusiasts whom I learn so much from.
Due to another UK lockdown, we are all appreciating being out in nature when we can, have you got any tips on bringing the outside indoors?
Recently, I really enjoyed watching David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants series. It was made in the 90’s and the time-lapse sequences are truly mind-blowing. Although it mainly focuses on plants, there are some tantalizing mushrooms cameos too.
What’s more manageable; looking after a house plant or a mushroom?
It depends! Similar to how different types of plants require different care, mushrooms are just as diverse. I find that blue and yellow oyster mushrooms are quite sturdy and grow very fast. (Check out a timelapse of my mushroom block growing during quarantine.) Lion’s Mane and pink oysters, on the other hand, seem to be very sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature. Even harder to grow are coveted mushrooms like truffles and morels, which have intricate relationships with certain tree species.
If you were a mushroom, which one would you be and why?
I’d love to be a stinkhorn, specifically a long net stinkhorn. (And actually, I was one for Halloween!) If you’ve never heard of this, just visualize a very phallic mushroom wearing a netted skirt. I find it both beautiful and ridiculous. And by the way, once this mushroom matures, it emits the stench of rotting flesh. This is a little trick to attract insects that help disseminate its spores...brilliant!