Parker Woods asks me to meet him at a teahouse in northwest Portland. I walk upstairs in the restored house to find a living room sprawl of teenagers and college students bent over their laptops in deep concentration with handmade mugs full of assorted teas. It’s silent. He arrives not much later and we talk shop, we talk Portland, we talk Tumblr, we talk photography.
Raised in Colorado Springs, Parker’s work has taken a noticeable shift since he moved from Southern California to the Pacific Northwest last year. His work has always had an element of rawness and vulnerability to it, one that’s unapologetic but not quite confrontational. His photography is like a conversation, one that the viewer is invited to join rather than excluded from. But lately, it’s not just raw work but elemental work. Honest work. With just a change in scene.
“I hate LA,” he says candidly. Los Angeles is where Parker got his professional start, but the scene and tone of the city were mismatched to his style. “I didn’t appreciate the whole market that everyone was geared toward. I started out doing street style, and it really wore on me. I didn’t want to be seen as the guy who’s following trends without establishing some base level of—you’re legitimate and you can do good work no matter what the subject is.”
There’s an artistic divide between authenticity and popularity, with authentic work reaching a nuanced honesty while popular work generally indulges a mass audience without much regard for artistic integrity. Unfortunately, in a field like photography, the scene is rife with amateurs cutting their teeth and building massive followings with mediocre work. Their style plays into trends, but it gets attention, leaving truly artistic photographers somewhat in the lurch.
“[At the start],” Parker says, “I’d just been messing around on Tumblr. I had said something, or half thought through something and posted it and someone said, oh you’re just a Tumblr photographer—what are you doing? And I was like, god, am I? Is that what I am? And that was horrifying, because there’s no separation between me and the fifteen-year-old guys that do duck lips in mirrors.”
Social media becomes something of a necessary evil, and because that’s where the popular artists develop their followings, it’s a difficult medium for authentic artists. “It’s always this dichotomy between—you’re either it, or you’re this blasphemous thing to whatever you’re trying to do. You’re either an Instagram photographer or you’re a real photographer that happens to run an Instagram.”
All the same, Parker’s work does stand out, even in his streetwear photography. Even when he’s steeped in the commercial marketplace, his work still comes across as real. Even when the setting isn’t aesthetically aligned with his work, it’s still through his lens, and the result is breathtaking. Across subjects, across styles, across venues.
“I always try to shoot for feelings of nostalgia and beauty that go beyond some naked girl on a bed,” he says of his style. “I think that’s garbage and I think photographers that only shoot work that’s, maybe not objectifying to them, but sexualizing women and that’s their entire portfolio—I think that’s just a waste of time.”
Breaking down the subject of photography or portrait photography to a true level of beauty and vulnerability takes an intense, immersive level of comfort between subject and artist, which doesn’t come easily, especially in an artform that is male-dominated. Images of women in photography have long been objectifying, sometimes borderline dehumanizing (think Terry Richardson). Even with female photographers staking their claim and having their voices heard and appreciated, men’s voices still speak louder, and it speaks through their work. Parker, however, is intensely, keenly aware of the divide between men and women in photography, between male photographers and female subjects.
“I’ve never identified with the weird power dynamic between men and women,” he admits. “Since I was a kid. I hate hyper-masculinity and I hate normative male culture. It’s so obnoxious to me and destructive. I’ve never engaged in it and I’ve never identified with it.
“I hate that there is this strange anxiety from the entire situation, because you’re going to either some studio or you’re meeting in a car with someone, going out to some remote location to take photos. One of the things I’ve found helpful is to diffuse the situation and in a way become vulnerable with them. It’s freaky and by recognizing and acknowledging that, and then trying to consciously let them know my intention, I think that relieves a lot of anxiety.”
There does seem to be something of a sensitivity around Parker’s work, a gentle eye rather than an objectifying one, and the quiet yet declarative depiction of his subjects has only grown stronger since his move.
Parker’s latest project Tethered is a collaborative series with Rachel Lemme, a friend from the University of Oregon. “It’s portraits mixed with fibers, and fibers are [strange] because it can be anything that’s malleable. Our aim is to make it a good blend between pretty enough to be commercial but also technically good enough to be relevant in the art community.”
Of the pieces Parker has shared, Tethered has an elegance and slight surrealism to it. The aesthetics of the human body begin to shift through the series, and while the body is traditionally seen as soft, organic, in Tethered the body comes off as impenetrable, nonorganic, as compared with the fibers surrounding the subjects. They drape and stretch themselves across the photographs, with the models interjecting a sense of humanity that’s cold and warm at the same time. Human and non-human at the same time. Their gaze invites you to look closer, to maybe see what they do.
Parker’s work takes photography back to one of its original artistic intents: connection. It’s not about social media metrics or followers of self-indulgence, it’s about the organic and the human and the raw. And whether that honesty comes off as beautiful or frightening, it’s at the very least something true.
Original photography by Parker Woods.