What is Mushrooms And Friends?
Picture a world of high colour, high contrast, and high ‘weird’. Where the fleshy gilled sits beside the leathery, among the verdant, shiny, waxy, spongey, frondular… the tactile adjectives are endless. Welcome to Mushrooms and Friends, a three-issue zine showcasing the macroscopic otherworldliness of fungi in dreamy still-life arrangements.
When US artist and animator Phyllis Ma first stepped into a mushroom farm in Brooklyn in 2019, she felt like she had “stepped onto the set of a sci-fi film”. This alienated yet endlessly curious sensibility infuses her photo zines with a ‘boldly going’ vibe that complements a palette that could best be described as 1960s Star Trek. She “fell into a mushroom obsession,” she admits, “and that’s where I am now.”
The fun and retro-tinged style does not belie the inherent strangeness of the creature-plant-others known to most of us as mushrooms. If anything, it enhances it. Encounters between multiple life-forms are also behind the title: “It has a double meaning for me,” she explains. “In a sense, mushrooms have a lot of ‘friends’ in the ecosystem. They form complex relationships with insects, birds, plants and other organisms. The other interpretation is referring to the friends that I’ve made through studying fungi.”
Who’s behind it?
New York-based Ma studied fashion and printmaking in the United States and Glasgow, and only got into photography through “a collaboration that started as a joke Instagram account in 2014, making fun of food art. Instead of nicely plated gourmet food, the project featured surreal, unappetising concoctions such as cakes made of hot dogs. “Surprisingly, it helped me get hired as a food photographer.” That account became her first DIY zine, and since then she has retouched photos, published a book, and learned that zine-making is fundamentally “about being creative with whatever skills or resources I have available”.
“Whether it’s a walk in a nearby cemetery or a hike in the mountains of Switzerland, looking for fungi can be quite a mission”
As the title suggests, the zine isn’t a completely solo project. Ma works with mycologists, cultivators and foragers to acquire and identify the organisms she collects in her arrangements. She also works closely with her partner Sam Bruchez, who designs the layouts and accompanies Ma on forays. “Whether it’s a walk in a nearby cemetery or a hike in the mountains of Switzerland, looking for fungi can be quite a mission. It’s definitely much more fun to have an adventure partner!”
Why should you read it?
The zines are concentrated shots of fungal fabulousness and could be a great way to entice friends into the mushroom world. Alternately, they could help with your own enjoyment of these omnipresent but still cryptic life-forms. These images are tinged with a playful solar-punk optimism that says mystery can be fun, and that encounters with the unknown can be positive. And that might well be the energy we need to get us through the future, or at least the rest of the day.
All images courtesy of Phyllis Ma