Tag Archives: Holly Parker

Focus On: The Fashion Photography of Holly Parker

Focus Holly Parker lead

by Gabe Valdez

Fashion photography has long suffered a big problem – decades ago, it dissociated from glamor photography and began favoring the clean lines and in-the-studio feeling of the commercial photography that became so popular in the 80s. Commercial photography sold us computers, TVs, cars, phones, anything technological by delivering clean-looking lines and shining, pristine surfaces in front of a black or white background. Commercial photography’s simple, perfected, antiseptic tone told us: here is the product, it is desirable.

Fashion photography took a number of these cues – it began isolating models in the same antiseptic settings. This had the result less of selling clothes than of selling the models themselves. After all, clothes sales aren’t what companies are after – they’re after brand loyalty. You have to sell a product again and again. You have to sell an image once. Over the years, however, buyers have become more and more resistant to commercial photography’s gimmicks. They aren’t nearly as effective as they once were.

So what’s different about Holly Parker? She returns a certain class to fashion photography, replacing hypersexualization with allure. Her models – women and men – are typically posed as strong and complex figures, not as helpless or sullen product. It’s an incredible and important difference.

Think of a photographer much like you’d think of the director of a film. Lighting, angle, composition, retouching and editing – it all comes together to make a huge difference in the shape a model’s performance takes.

Whereas some photographers still stress a model’s gauntness or pose them plaintively, as if they’re a toy waiting to be picked up by the viewer, Parker highlights a model’s muscle and tone. A big part of this is due to her favoring natural light over complex lighting set-ups. The portrayals she gets from models are realistic yet still iconic. They’re more colorful than the overly serious commercial approach to fashion photography, and they stress the landscape around a model as much as they do the model herself.

This may seem counter-intuitive, as if it draws focus away from the model, or the swimwear or dress being sold, but to the contrary – it’s a photographer’s way of world-building. Parker shifts the viewer’s experience from one of desiring the model to one of desiring a time and place – an entire experience. This gives her models greater function, stresses them as performers inside that world she’s built instead of simply as commercial objects.

From a brand perspective, there are any number of reasons to favor presenting an experience over presenting an object. Perhaps that’s for another article – my precise interest lies more in how Parker’s artistry expands the role and power of the models inside her work.

In particular, she has a keen eye for the interaction of focal points, asymmetry, and different levels of shallow focus. This is my favorite shot of hers.

Focus Holly Parker 1

She finds a way to echo the color of the model’s top in the rock face and her skirt in the further cliffs. Moreover, the model’s offset stance – cocked head, arm held across herself, leg bent out – uses her body to direct the eye in a natural manner from top left to lower right along the photo. This is supported in the slightly lesser curve of the rock face, and if there’s one thing the human eye loves, it’s concentric encouragement. There’s a curve on the left, there’s a similar curve in the middle, the brain is visually pleased. The upper right of the shot is largely negative space – there’s stuff there, but it’s soft focus, and so our brain guides us back to the center, where we know there’s a reinforced pattern and we’re more visually comfortable.

This, too, is encouraged by the color scheme – light brown rock, light brown top, white skirt, white cliffs (I know it’s Berkeley Gold and Snow or something, but let’s call it light brown and white). This implies a certain verticality as our eyes go from left to right – as colors grade lighter to darker across an image, our brains tend to want to reassemble that vertically. Darker objects imply distance, reinforcing on a second level the increasing depth of the shot as it opens right. This creates a slight touch of disorientation. Again, this returns us to the center, to an anchored position. I’d be shocked if Parker didn’t retouch to bring the colors of the rocks, cliffs, and clothes closer together. What it all adds up to is a number of concepts that work in conjunction to return our eyes constantly to the fashion at the image’s center.

Now you can just plop fashion in the middle of a photo and your eyes naturally gravitate to it, but what Parker does is some pretty high-level conceptualization – she gives the fashion moment, character, and attitude. She creates a visual anchor while purposely throwing us off so we seek to return to it. What’s most impressive is that she’s not using one trick in isolation – that’s gimmick territory. She’s using several techniques that each strengthen the next.

I’m also a fan of her closer, portrait work:

Focus Holly Parker 2

Again, Parker plays with asymmetry and an empty upper corner in soft focus, but these qualities alone don’t amount to a great photo. They have to be part of a more complex whole. There are vertical and horizontal bisections happening here. Where the high collar meets the horizon behind the model creates an implied line across the entire photo, and where the shadow takes up the left third of her face (as we look at her) gives us a strict lighting separation.

This means the smallest quadrant – the upper left – is also the heaviest in terms of image. It’s dark due to shadow and it’s busy due to the model’s hair being pushed over. Our eye is encouraged to find a simpler, brighter position to start. The head wrap creates a very easy transition for the eye to escape right, where that soft focus corner again makes the eye go a little crazy. The out-of-focus sky has no texture and we want detail, so our eyes hook onto the top the model’s wearing – its texture is a repeated, orderly detail that creates a comfortable visual anchor in the image.

Stand back and look at the image – even after I’ve told you all this, your eyes go from upper left to upper right before making a diagonal cut to the center. Again, Parker’s disorienting you a little bit so that she can take charge of your eye and guide it through the photo the way she wants. This is what I mean by combining focal points, asymmetry, and shallow focus. Your eye doesn’t just shoot to the center. Parker directs it along the path she wants you to take.

She also breaks the rules and can be a little Werner Herzog with some of her contextual details. You typically don’t want an ocean background tilting to one side. But ask me if it matters given the performance she’s captured from her model.

Focus Holly Parker 3

This isn’t a perfect shot – there’s less technique here – but it’s one that communicates a hell of a moment. Most photographers – even most fashion photographers I know (sorry, guys) don’t have Parker’s knack for capturing the smaller moments of her models’ performances, let alone her ability to guide the eye in a way that suggests the experience of world, story, and character. Now, Parker does have a few faults. Her photography of men isn’t quite as assured, but it’ll get there.

Specifically, her preference for using natural light to show off both tone and imperfections like smile lines will be of terrific advantage. She knows how to build story and character out of these.

Focus Holly Parker 4

I’m highlighting Holly Parker because…well, it’s my job as a critic to point out the artists whom I hope are the future of their industry. Sure, Parker’s a woman in a male-dominated industry. She’s also a step ahead in the awkward, industry-wide transition from commercial-influenced fashion photography to a brighter, more character- and experience-driven style. I also feel her work is a far more empowering presentation of women in fashion than much of what’s been generally accepted in recent years.

More than anything else, however, Parker’s doing it in ways you don’t typically see in fashion photography, employing complex, intersecting framing and visual techniques across multiple levels. I’m analyzing her technique in the same way I might certain classical paintings, or a P. T. Anderson long-take. That’s certainly not true of most photographers, not at this level of complexity.

I’m not saying she’s Dorothea Lange or Alex Prager just yet. Her photography still speaks of someone who’s harnessing all these gifts. She’s still figuring out when and how to use them, but the intrinsic talent she’s showing at a very early stage of her career is phenomenal. Parker’s a superior talent and if she can continue to develop her own style and add even more tools and technique to her repertoire, I very much look forward to seeing more of her work both in the fashion industry and outside of it.

What I’ve analyzed here are just a few images. Visit her site if you’d like to see more of Holly Parker’s photography, or her work as a model.

Thursday’s Child — Friends of the Blog Day

We’re highlighting a couple articles coming from friends today, including a superb piece on photography by John Schell, an article on misogyny in the gaming industry by Elizabeth Tobey, and an article on the Slender Man murder and how much media is or isn’t to blame by folklorist Joseph Laycock.

But first, we’re required to include a David Bowie song in every Thursday’s Child article. It’s in the charter or something. Given our subjects of fashion photography, gender dynamics, and the folkore of memes, I can’t think of anything more appropriate than Floria Sigismondi’s weird, Tilda Swinton-inhabited music video for Bowie’s “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).”

Now, on with the show:

Terrance Malick’s Darkest Film
Rob Turner

To the Wonder

When I write a review, I’m limited to 700 words. My responsibilities are to translate the experience of watching a particular movie and to clarify in what ways it’s valuable. The bulk of the work is in my editing.

When I write a film essay, there’s no limit save the reader’s attention span. My responsibilities vary because the bulk of the work is in the research. It’s like a science experiment – you start with the seed of a theory or message and then you learn everything you can. Either the research proves out or you’re proven wrong. Either way, you’ve got an article.

Nowhere is the bulk of the work in the writing – that’s the fun part, that’s the part that you can’t get onto a page fast enough. You can sense when someone needs to write, absolutely needs it like breathing, and when someone is obligated to write. When someone needs to write, you’ll put everything else to the side and read them for pages. You want to know where their emotional journey as a writer takes you. When someone is obligated to write, you’ll look at three paragraphs as an eternity that deserves skimming at best. Research sits awkwardly; the seams in their editing are apparent.

Rob Turner needs to write about To the Wonder. It seeps through every word of his article. His research is considerable, yet hidden. His structure is exacting, yet elegant. That’s how you translate the experience of a film – you hide all the work behind it but the passion, the awe of being a witness to it. If that’s what Malick can achieve as a director in To the Wonder, that’s what a writer who needs to write can achieve in writing about it. Rob Turner does just that.

Anti-Strobism and Using Natural Light in Photography
John Schell

Schnell article lead

I know we have some photographers and models who read here, and John Schell’s article is an absolute must-read for them. Natural styles of shooting are often overlooked in film, and that’s doubly true in photography. There’s some superb advice here on how to shoot with natural light and play with over- and under-exposures. We’re used to everything being overly strobed and photoshopped and little details being blended out in fashion photography, whereas natural light brings out dimples, smile lines, and other imperfections.

We’re becoming somewhat resistant to excessively perfected photos, at least insofar as fashion photography goes. (Landscape, nature, and commercial photography are frustratingly different stories.) The imperfections that are so regularly hidden from us are what people remember best and most appreciate about each others’ appearances. They can make a photograph recapture a ‘day in the life’ feeling instead of a day in the studio feeling. They bring back a warmth and glow that glamor and fashion photography have lately abandoned in favor of antiseptic tones and clean lines.

Ditching strobes and learning to shoot naturally is a big step in the right direction. For another example of this, I do prefer the natural light style of Holly Parker, a photographer and the model in many of John’s shots. Look to Holly’s work for color composition, framing, focus, and very smart use of focal points. She’s got a cinematographer’s eye for composition. Look to John’s work for how he uses shadow, exposure, contrast/blow-outs, and especially implied motion. His work is more classically commercial.

Thanks to Holly Parker for pointing this article out.

Sexism and Misogyny in Gaming
Elizabeth Tobey


I know a few folks who work in the video games industry. Both women and men I know assert it’s their dream job, but for women it usually comes with a hesitation and a caveat about the online community. And by caveat I mean quoting threats of death and rape they receive on a weekly basis.

Elizabeth gives several examples from her own experience in the industry, as well as suggestions for how the community needs to change. Because of the inherently online nature of many games and their platforms, I believe what’s taught and reinforced about women through that medium has a far greater effect on youth culture than what’s taught even on film or television.

For the kind of response women in this industry regularly have to put up with, look no further than the first post in response to Elizabeth’s article, from anonymous poster Blah Blah: “Genders will never be equal, a woman could only take this viewpoint. Women have what most men want, a wet hole. Equal, so no more ladies nights, we won’t pay for your dinner on a date, you can open the door for us. Etc. You’re a woman that is employed as a public relations person…do you really think you’d have gotten that first job if you didn’t have boobs?”

I don’t know, Blah Blah, but plenty of men magically get jobs in the industry without having breasts. Also, ladies’ nights are not a treat for women, they’re an advertising plug for bars looking to drum up more business. Also also, try splitting the check if you can’t pay for dinner without expectations attached. Also also also, try buying a friend dinner with no expectations outside of having a nice dinner with someone. Also also also also, I’d like to suggest the mind-blowing notion that holding the door open for someone does not automatically mean they owe you sex. Controversial, I know. Five alsos in a row: try holding the door open for everyone who needs it, and not just the people you want to sleep with. Six alsos in a row: someone buy Blah Blah a copy of Strunk & White; I had to correct the punctuation while quoting him and I can’t be around for him all the time; I might accidentally hold the door open for him, and then he’d owe me sex.

Thanks to Elizabeth Tobey for letting us know about the article.

Media Algorithms and Bad Reporting
Erin Biba


I once saw a program titled Top 10 Deadliest Things About Volcanoes. I thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure number 1 is going to be volcanoes.” It was actually a decent program about the history of volcanic eruptions and their effects at different eras in our history, but the countdown approach was simply one made to entice viewers – “I can only think of 5 deadly things about volcanoes; I wonder what the others will be,” that sort of crap.

We have a sense that attention spans are shorter and that it’s everyone else’s fault but a writer’s or publisher’s. It’s the effect of technology, it’s the effect of movies, it’s the effect of 37 hours of TV a day. Yes, it is. That doesn’t change anything.

It’s still the responsibility of the writer to capture that attention span and the responsibility of the publisher to prize it. The poetry community whines that it’s all but extinct save for a few intellectual circles while the organizations that define what poetry is reject slam and hip-hop as too commercial and performance-based. The literary community holds up drama while acting as if genre and young adult fiction – which still sells like hotcakes – is beneath it. Conversely, the studio system shoves money down the throat of genre fiction – a $200 million movie that makes $300 million will get sequels, while repeatedly making $20 million narratives that make $100 million (see Steven Soderbergh) will get a director run out of the system.

The point is that people are still interested in those things that demand our attention. Yes, technology’s to blame for the deficit in our attention spans, but so are the poetry and literary communities, studios, and publishers that are too afraid to demand their readers’ and viewers’ attention. Those communities and companies have as much of a hand in training readers and viewers how to read and watch as any technology does. If we don’t make demands of readers and invest in good reporting and good writing, then we’re just training those readers to reject us in a generation’s time.

There’s a reason people are coming to this site and others like it. It’s not the presentation; lord knows I need to clean that up. It’s because we have high standards for our articles and, honestly, for our readers, too. I’ll make top 10 lists here and there, but only if the list has a good reason to highlight something more important than a subjective ranking that’s likely to change tomorrow. I can’t even highlight others’ articles without writing commentaries that are just as long as the article. Readers have read, shared, and argued (oh god, have they argued) Russ’s and Vanessa’s work because people still want to think and be challenged when they read and they watch and they listen.

The only thing we teach readers by dumbing ourselves down is to learn to ignore us. The less you demand of your readers, the less they value you. And you cannot demand something of your readers unless you demand something of your writers first. That means prizing the ability to write, and that starts with publishers and publications both online and off.

“’Slender Man’ Murder Attempt Wasn’t Media or Madness”
Joseph Laycock

Slender Man doctored meme

And finally, concluding with a consideration of the power of media in contrast to the power of community. How much is one to blame for violence versus the other?

I remember thinking after Columbine that, while those kids listened to Marilyn Manson and played Doom, neither of those things taught them Hitler’s birthday. Someone around them taught them that, and taught them that violence was a viable way of celebrating it.

The difference now is that community isn’t as immediate as it was even 15 years back. We’ve seen this with the Slender Man attempted murder, and we saw it two weeks ago in Isla Vista – your primary community may be an online one, and what you’re taught there isn’t as easy to monitor or put in context. As Laycock writes, it has nothing to do with an inability to differentiate reality from the internet – that’s a myth, and children are perfectly capable of that differentiation. Let’s not evolve a new Twinkie Defense.

It has everything to do with community, education, and social environment, three things that are now often conveyed through a less immediate and answerable medium than we’ve learned to deal with at this point. But read Joe’s article – he elucidates these and other ideas in far greater detail.

Thanks to Joseph Laycock for letting us know about the article.