Louise Parker is constantly busy on both sides of the camera. Hailing from a small town in Minnesota, the photographer turned model has a discerning eye and an uncanny ability — to photograph simple, yet intimate and thought-provoking images that gives us a fresh glimpse into the fashion and modeling industry.
Armed with this talent, Parker was first commissioned by New York Magazine last year to document behind the scenes images from a model’s perspective during New York Fashion Week. The end result was so well received that the Bard Collage graduate was later headhunted by other fashion glossies such as Dazed & Confused, Style.com and The Refinery 29 to lend her photojournalistic eye.
As a model, Louise also needs no introduction. She has appeared in numerous editorials for Vogue Italia, Dazed & Confused, V and i-D, graced the runways for designer labels such as Chanel, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana and Saint Laurent, and collaborated with top fashion and art photographers such as Richard Burbridge, Josh Olins, Ryan McGinley and Roe Etheridge.
In an interview with The GROUND, Parker shares with us how she got her foot into her industry, her influences and a selection of her work.
Hi, Louise! Tell us about your background and how you got into photography.
I’m originally from St. Paul, Minnesota. I became interested in photography when I joined the high-school newspaper and became their photo editor. That was very photojournalistic — going to sports shows, social events taking pictures. When I applied to Bard College, I initially wanted to study painting, but after taking one class with Steven Shore who was the head of the Photography Department, I immediately decided that I had to major in Photography. The entire curriculum setup is really amazing, and I got more involved with the medium.
How long is the Photography program and what’s it like?
It takes four years to graduate and the program is very traditional. The first two years is only film and the freshman year is all about 35mm black and white photography. I just love that and how regimented it is, where it felt like a very disciplined study of photography, both technically and aesthetically.
And, how did you get into modeling?
I got into modeling when I was a freshman at Bard. Someone that worked for Ryan McGinley Studios scouted me on the streets, and I ended up working with Ryan a couple of times. And through him, I met Roe Etheridge, whom I ended up modeling for a few different times throughout college. I remember one job I got paid like $400, and I thought it was amazing – I have to do this!
Did you have an agent when you started?
No. Roe and Ryan have the same commercial agent and he helped me get an interview with an agency when I was a sophomore in college. I interviewed with IMG and they asked me to take a semester off school and I declined as I wanted to focus on finishing my degree.
When I graduated college, I thought — what am I going to do with a fine arts degree right now? I wanted to live in New York, and asked myself “Am I going to work in a gallery?” Instead, I decided to give modeling a shot. I’m very happy and do feel really lucky that I ended up with The Society Management, which is a very good agency. George, my agent, is great!
Was it difficult in the beginning?
Yes. After college, I looked for agencies to interview with. I kind of went around it in a bootleg way — calling them up and asking, “Hi, can I meet you?” [laughs] I went to a few open calls and I had some connections, which hooked me up with an interview at Marilyn [agency]. George, who was at Marilyn at that time, has always been a huge support, but the rest of the agency was very skeptical about me.
Why were they skeptical?
Well, they questioned why I’d already done some fashion editorials in college and they were surprised that nothing more came out of it.
The editorials you did in college were more fine-art projects, right?
Yes, but you know, Marie Chaix was styling these editorials and they were for big fashion magazines. For them, it was confusing that I’d had these experiences without an agency. I also think they just wanted to know how committed I was to the idea of modeling. They told me to get in shape and come back in a month just in time for fashion week. I came back, and for my first show season, signed an exclusive with Saint Laurent. I guess Marilyn decided I was good enough and signed me. I left a year later with George and signed on with The Society.
What kind of projects did you collaborate with Ryan and Roe?
For his personal projects, Ryan would do road-trips that are like 2 months long but I just went on a short one, 5 days in West Virginia with him and his crew to the Caves. It was perfect because it was my fall-break from school then. And with Roe, we did a couple of different editorials for Acne Paper, Opening Ceremony Magazine, just to name a few, all with the stylist Marie Chaix.
Oh, I remember Roe shot you in swimwear! What was that for?
I think that was for Double Magazine? Roe also ended up using it in his show like three or four years ago at the Andrew Kreps Gallery. Actually, it was a funny picture I looked very awkward in it. But, it was a great photo!
Did he give you a print for that?
Yeah! I have a smaller print as the actual print is massive, almost the size of an entire wall.
How did you end up shooting with Roe?
I met Ryan’s commercial agent and he said I would be great to do a shoot with Roe Etheridge for an independent publication called Parody Magazine. I continued to work with him after the shoot.
Are you familiar with Ryan’s work back then?
Actually, I wasn’t too familiar with his work until I met one girl at Bard who had gone on a road trip with him and we spoke about the experience. If I hadn’t talked to that girl I’m not sure I would have done the road trip, because the idea was like, “Ok, let’s go to some underground caves and get naked with a bunch of strangers.” [laughs] Looking back, I was 18 at that time and just did it.
What did you shoot with him?
It was an amazing shoot and a really great experience. Everyone on the trip was so cool and I’m still friends with Ryan’s former photo assistants. We were exploring caves, crawling on our stomachs to get to different places.
Looking back, I realized how dangerous it was, and potentially, accidents could happen if we were not careful. I was in a harness, climbing upside down in the caves and doing flips on air mattresses. I don’t think any photos from that trip were published because it was the very first cave trip he did and he was still figuring it out.
I hope that experience paid off!
Actually, after I got back, Ryan’s studio called me and asked if I was interested in doing a money job in the city. They didn’t give me much details of the project but I took it up anyway because it sounded great! When I got to the set, they said, “Look, the stunt double is here.” Turned out that Ryan was shooting Abbey Lee Kershaw for the controversial suicide film, “Lewitt”, and needed a stunt double. They probably thought I was perfect for the role as I did some crazy stunts on the cave trip and wasn’t afraid of heights. I was in awe and blown away by Abby Lee as she is so tall, beautiful and exotic looking!
I guess Roe and Ryan inspired you a lot?
Definitely! Working with someone like Ryan and Roe is amazing, as I love their work. It would be awesome if I could work more often with other photographers like them, so it made sense to me to pursue modeling.
Are there any photographers that really inspire and influence your work?
I’m a huge fan of Roe’s work. In terms of the projects I’ve been doing, I am inspired by Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits, Claude Cahun, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Philip Lorca-DiCorcia, Mike Brodie, Lise Safarti.
And who’s your favorite photographer of all time?
Lewis Baltz. He is a black and white photographer from the ‘70s. I love his ability to make very boring industrial landscape photographs really interesting and beautiful. It’s very much about shadows and abstract shapes. When I was in high school, I was very interested in abstract painters such as Richard Diebenkorn. When I found the connection between that and abstract landscapes, that drew me further into photography.
© Louise parker, Image courtesy of Louise Parker
What type of photography interests you?
Actually, when I was in college, I was really interested in the new topographic photographers from the ‘70s such as Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, The Becher(s) and Henry Wessel Jr. It’s mostly black and white industrial landscapes taken with a 4×5 camera.
[In] my senior year, I did something totally different for my thesis as I took portraits of people, which lead me on a different path. I’ve always been very interested in photojournalism and documentary photography, but also the way a photograph is both truth and fiction. I hope my work tells a story and creates a fictional narrative of a different world.
Does your job allow you to show that idea?
It depends on the job conditions and circumstances. I always try to focus on how I can make my photographs seem more fictional, whether it’s finding moments that feel whimsical or even really dark. For example, when I am on set for a fashion editorial where I’m in an amazing Dior dress inside a crazy house with an hour of downtime. How can I take advantage of what’s happening to make it into my own story?
Do the photographers that you work with get nervous when you pull out your camera?
Not really. I do get a range of reactions though, mostly kind of condescending. They would go, “Oh, that’s cute you’re taking pictures”, to “Do you want me to take a picture for you, honey?” or “Let me do it for you”, especially when I get my tripod out and start taking self-portraits. But, I’m like, “No, that’s not what I want”, as I want to take the photo myself.
Recently, I did a shoot with a photographer, Brianna Capozzi for Marfa Journal. She’s very young, only 26. I had my camera with me and she was really supportive. She loved the fact that I was taking photos on the shoot and wanted me to send her the pictures. Maybe she would publish some of them in the magazine. That was the first time I felt like someone had taken me seriously, not that I’m asking anyone to. I always try my best to be professional. I’m there for them and not for myself.
You have a job to do!
That’s right! I’m not trying to steal their idea. I don’t want to create an image that looks like theirs. It’s about creating something different and something more personal that shows my perspective. It’s just funny to see the various different reactions I get.
We picked 5 photographs that we love from your body of work. Could you explain the idea behind those pictures?
Photo of girls wearing sneakers: This photo was taken in January 2014 at the Chanel Spring 2015 Couture show. I loved the way the pastel pinks and whites from the clothes and sneakers blended with the girl’s pale and peachy legs. I wanted to capture the contrast of the fancy tweeds and delicate dresses paired with sparkly tennis shoes. That season the theme amongst many designers was the “casualness of couture.”
Photo of me with towel: This is another self-portrait I took while traveling alone for a job. Back in my hotel room I knew I wanted to make a photograph using the weird red neon lights above the headboard. Again, I am “my own muse” in the picture.
Photo of me behind leaf: I am often the only model on set so during downtime, I always try and make a couple self-portraits. This photograph is very playful. It captures a curious me exploring and trying to make something of my own during my free time.
What projects are you currently working on? Any long-term goals?
Right now, I’m working on collages. Taking imagery of myself from the Internet and magazines, appropriating it and making it my own. Another thing about my work is also about reclaiming my own image.
Another documentary project I want to do is to photograph models in their homes to show their living environment whether it’s a models apartment or her parent’s house in New Jersey, etc. So far, I’ve taken two, but hopefully, I’ll do more soon. I think it could be a cool body of work and it would be a dream to have a publication like New York Times Magazine commission it.
In the long run, I want to put together a book of the photos I’ve been taking as well.
When you take a picture, do you direct or control the expressions of your subjects?
It’s a mix. I try to portray the girls not as a model, but as a person. It’s either catching that off-moment or just letting them smile and strike a pose. It’s difficult since they’re professionals, but being a model helps as well because they treat me as a friend and are more relaxed. At the same time, I’m also not trying to take an ugly picture. I just want to capture their essence.
Do your friends or family play a part in influencing your work?
Not really, but my boyfriend Louis Heilbronn is also a photographer, so we talk about photography all the time, which drives me crazy! We criticize each other a lot. He takes beautiful photographs though — a traditional and classic style with an eclectic mix of landscapes and portraiture. He just had his second solo show in Paris and coincidently, he did an internship with Thomas Struth (also featured in this issue of The GROUND).
My mom has always been interested in art. She does paintings, so I’ve always had that artistic support. I also rely on critiques from my friends from college who were also photography majors.
I try to keep my work very personal and focused on a specific project, which currently, is documenting the modeling lifestyle.
Our theme for this issue is ‘Family’. Would you consider people in fashion your family as well?
In some ways, we are a fashion family. The models that I work with are the only people that can really understand what we are all going through especially during fashion week where it’s very hectic or a photo shoot that’s really early in the morning and you’re freezing. Even the girls from my agency: if I don’t know them that well, you will always have that kind of friendship, someone to talk to.
Do you keep your friendships from the industry separate? And Why?
Definitely. It is different as the girls that I’ve become sort of close through work; I don’t see them outside as much, only on occasions. I like having the modeling world separate because I find it exhausting sometimes to talk about work all the time. I do feel lucky to have my friends from college who share the same interests and are completely detached from the industry. However, I do appreciate my friends from work especially when we need someone to talk to and share our experiences. It is difficult for young girls who move to New York when they are in their early teens as they need to go out and foster new friendships and work relationships, and [they are] also adapting to the heavy demands of the industry.
When I started modeling, I was a bit hesitant and skeptical of other girls as they are just models that are just only interested in work and modeling is the only thing they care about. But, that proved wrong as I’ve met many amazing girls like Anmari (Botha) who have really cool interests outside modeling and there’s so much more to them. I think it’s important.
There should be an organization that encourages models to pursue interests outside modeling.
© Nicholas Ong, Portrait of Louise Parker by Nicholas Ong
I think it’s a great start for you since photography and modeling is also part of your job and interest.
Yes, it’s great being around that all the time and I feel very lucky to have access to this world.