Ashley Armitage and Willem Holzer's "Just Girl Things" Is an Intimate and Nostalgic Portrait of a Young Woman
The photographs and accompanying film highlight the Tumblr icon and model Diana Veras' early days as a girl on the internet, and who she is now.
It was nearly a decade ago that photographer Ashley Armitage first saw photos of Diana Veras.
It was 2015 on Tumblr, a sacred time and place for a certain generation of artists. Veras helped define the aesthetic: She got her start as a teenager, when she was “just a girl on the internet posting photos and taking selfies,” she says. She later became an American Apparel model, was scouted by Petra Collins, and walked in Chloe Sevigny’s Opening Ceremony show.
A couple of years ago, Armitage fulfilled a dream of working with Veras for the first time – now, Veras is the subject of Armitage’s latest photography project “Just Girl Things,” which is a series of playfully reverent photographs of Veras shot at a scuzzy, pay-by-the-hour love motel, with Veras in clown makeup that delivers a surrealist look at individuality, confidence, and self-criticism.
“I brought on this makeup artist who does cool, experimental makeup. Her name's Cassandra Lee, and we just put Diana in a clown face and then put her in Sandy Liang clothes,” Armitage says. “I feel like there was this interesting kind of disconnect between what she was wearing and what her makeup was, which I feel like is really fun.”
To accompany the photos, director Willem Holzer shot a VHS video capturing Veras sharing her own story of how she got her start, creating an arthouse film-style portrait of a budding identity told in an intimate interview, combined with B-roll of the shoot, as well as photographs. It wasn’t ever the plan to make a documentary, but Holzer wanted to come hang out on set for a day to hang out with Armitage, since the two are close friends. But what happened was an unexpected and easy intimacy.
The resulting photographs and film is a stunning portrait of a young woman, both the one in front of the camera and by proxy, the woman behind it: The video gives you a glimpse into the quiet intimacy and girlish joy of Armitage’s work.
The video came to be naturally; Diana was talking about her early days of modeling, and afterwards, Armitage suggested Holzer reach out to Diana to get her full story. Whether it be from the subdued clown makeup, the bright natural light compared with the potpourri-color faded fabrics of the room or the strange setting, a liminal space where you’re certain you’ve been before, even just in a dream, the photographs and film are an otherworldly, nostalgic, and ultimately very sweet portrait of a young woman.
“I’m still just a girl on the internet figuring it out,” Veras says in the film. “And like all these experiences and all these things that happened through my life I didn't really understand it. I was just a kid chasing a dream and I still am. I still feel that way every day.”
NYLON spoke to Armitage and Holzer about “Just Girl Things,” which premieres on NYLON today.
I would love to just hear a little bit about how this came to be. “Just Girl Things” is part of a larger project, “The Girls' Room,” right?
Armitage: I've been shooting the series “The Girls' Room” for a very long time, since 2014, when I was in college. It's always been about shooting my friends or people I meet on the internet in intimate spaces. I started shooting in love motels and became pretty addicted to it. I think I'd shot in my first love motel in 2017 in Chicago, and I just keep going back, and I keep going back to different love motels, whether it's New York or LA or Chicago or wherever.
This one came about because me and Diana, we've been shooting together for a few years now, and we've been in some pretty funny situations. Our first shoot ever together was this abandoned house in New Jersey and it ended up that there were squatters living in it, and it got to a point where we were like, "We actually just need to leave." For some reason, I keep pulling Diana into these really funny locations and we leave with these ridiculous stories. But she and I were talking about doing another shoot and I was like, "Let's go to this love motel and do something maybe a little bit weird this time."
Willem, how did it go from you just casually bringing your camera to making the footage into an actual film?
Holzer: I showed up to shoot some behind the scenes footage. I really had no idea what she was going to do at the end of the project because it was just like, "I just want to come and hang out. I haven't seen you in a while." And while we were shooting at some point, it's the last clip in the doc of Diana talking. I don't know if Ashley had asked it or she'd just been talking about it, but she started talking about her start and grabbing things from a clothing store to model it on the internet because she would take photos with her friends, and I was listening and we were all staring at her. I think Ashley was loading new film and we were resetting the lights.
At that point I was just like, "Oh, this could be stock, the idea." It became a thing where I had Diana call me and leave me voice memos, notes and I would just take these VO and cut it to some of the footage, and then ask for more photography from her starting out, and messing around with it until it felt like we had at least a story that I wanted to, at least in some way reflect Ashley's work a little bit. There's a lot of teenage girl bedroom vulnerability and especially with this one, with the makeup change and everything, I thought it fit with her series, especially with Diana's story.
I loved that it was also about the process of Ashley and Diana working together. I feel like it helped contextualize it in the larger work that you do of shooting girls and making them feel very comfortable in themselves.
Armitage: Yeah, for sure. Also, I should mention, I think I've told Diana this, but I was a Tumblr girl and that was how I spent all of my time in high school and college, and I was a fan of Diana's. I had known who she was since 2015 and I was always like, "I really want to take photos of her someday." I think I just DMd her one day a few years ago and I was like, "She'll never read this, but I might as well just send her a message." And she responded that day and was like, "I'd love to shoot together." And that's how our first shoot came about.
So, I was fangirling a little bit because I was like, "You've been this person on my screen, on my blog for a long time and now here we are doing this shoot in a crack house. Cool." But yeah, no, Willem, I feel like it's so cool how you explained the process of how the video came about because it really did start really loose, and you didn't really know what was going to happen with it. You were just there with your VHS camcorder, and I love how it slowly evolved into this kind of nostalgic story about Diana.
I almost feel like this could be a bigger piece because about the Tumblr era. It’s cool that people who grew up in that time are finally able to make art about that time.
Holzer: A lot of Ashley’s work is like, say, your bedroom selfie Tumblr era, but there's that playfulness of now there's an artist in the room taking those photos, and that overlap of someone else there with that same identity. It's slightly more elevated, which it's a nice way of honoring that point in your life. This is what I always see.
Armitage: Honestly, now that I'm thinking about all these layers of intimacy, I'm connecting it back to Tumblr because I feel like you never really told people what your Tumblr was. There was something kind of private about it, at least for me, and I think a lot of other people. But even now, my page is still there and I'll look back on it and it's really nostalgic for me. It's cool to see the images that were really inspiring to you 10 years ago, but it's not something I ever want to share with anyone because it's just such a direct line into my brain. There's something really intimate about it.
Watch “Just Girl Things,” below.
Photography by Ashley Armitage
Shot & Edited by Willem Holzer
Featuring Diana Veras
Additional photos from Isabella Norton and Diana Veras
Music by Jeremy McLennan