Words by Su Erketin-Taner
Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, B.o.B., Jeezy, Usher, Jameela Jamil, Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Baby, Roddy Ricch, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Jaden Smith, Post Malone, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, A$AP Rocky, SZA, Isaiah Rashad, a slew of models. All captured in a single climax with signature stark, crispy edges, architectural composition, use of shadow play, focus on motion and eyes loaded with a dominant emotion. This is the kind of photography shot that deserves a pause.
I’d love to see, as many others would, the world as 41-year-old celebrity photographer and videographer Christopher Parsons (and his Canon 4D Mark IV) visualizes it. For now and for this article, we’ll just have to watch pictures of the Jacksonville native’s past develop in our very own lingual darkroom to catch a glimpse through his eyes.
As with most art-inclined creators, Parsons’ appetite for art began early. Soon after the terrible twos came Parsons’ sketching sevens and artistic eights. “I started off drawing comic books and painting, kind of emulating my older brother, Byron, and that kind of got me on this path of art. And I used to love, kind of, playing with building blocks and that got me into architecture,” he said.
From then on, the photographer pursued the creative at every level of education. Parsons danced on stages at Bishop Kenny High School and The Ritz Theatre & Museum, which would later influence the characteristic movement found in his photography. He even sat in on shows with his uncle, local jazz music legend Longineu Parsons. Later, he studied architecture at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) and simultaneously taught himself graphic design, aided by an insightful internship with mentor and photographer Justin Huff. At FAMU, Parsons also began experimenting with his first camera, a Christmas present from his dad.
At 23, Parsons dropped out of college, deciding to take one of the first leaps of faith in his career. “I was really kind of lost at that time. I was being pulled away from school. I was a freelance graphic designer, and I was extremely passionate about that,” he recalled, “and I decided to, kind of, jump off the cliff and, kind of, bet on myself and not have any safeties.”
The challenge of entering the world degree-less and lacking a safety net motivated the photographer’s career, which predominantly consisted of graphic designing at the time. Employing the instruction from his graphic design internship, Parsons created custom Myspace pages for Jay-Z, Rihanna, Snoop Dogg, T-Pain and entertainment agency Roc Nation from his family’s Jacksonville living room while fine-tuning his photography.
While Parsons’ early art platform was built on hard work, he also attributed much of his success to tireless manifestation. “I made a list of 10 almost impossible to reach celebrities that I wanted to work with. That was around the time I saw “The Secret” for the first time, so I really started to dive into the manifesting and really, kind of, visualizing, what it is that I wanted to pursue and within that year, I had reached about eight out of ten [of those celebrities],” he said.
Inspired by his manifestation and a career-changing job opening, Parsons made the complete shift to photography. A few leaps of faith, emails to managers, and important phone calls led Parsons to one of his first big photography breakthrough clients, B.o.B.
A gutsy phone call with B.o.B.’s manager, TJ Chapman, expedited a photography and videography first for the young creative: a tour shoot. “I had never shot a tour. I had never shot a video at that moment, so I had to, like, research and Google, I actually googled ‘tour photography,’ ‘camera lenses,’” he said. “I had no idea what I was doing, and I basically landed in Boston and faked the whole tour.”
Parsons’ “fake it” moment later allowed him to “make it” in the photography industry. The photographer broadened his lens over two decades shooting musicians, actors, athletes, models, and campaigns for Jordan and Nike as industry connections were forged. Parsons’ active business strategizing, networking, self-marketing, inclination to take risks and commitment to learning led him to, perhaps, the two most momentous shoots of his career: Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city tour” shoot and Roddy Ricch’s album cover shoot.
Like many of his career decisions, Parsons’ 2012 move to LA was impulsive but rewarding. At the time, his relationship with Lamar was just budding, reinforced by the Parsons’ connection to Top Dawg Entertainment’s (Lamar’s label) general manager, Ret One. What was just a fledgling relationship turned into a two-and-a-half year contract after Parsons’ solo shot Lamar for a New Year’s Eve photoshoot in LA that year.
As Parsons transitioned from a photographer to the photographer of Kendrick Lamar, his lifestyle also transitioned. Lamar’s every movement, show, studio recording time, work out session and even downtime was a photo-op; Parsons’ job quickly became a 24/7 responsibility. “When the artist sleeps, you sleep. When the artist is up, you’re up also. You’re just in place to never miss a shot,” Parsons said.
But much of Parsons’ “quick and nimble” photography style progressed in these moments, already partially developed due to an early fascination with the bodily flow of jazz musicians. “Everything is subject to change, and you can plan a million shots,” he said, “but when you’re in that moment, everything kind of changes.”
The credibility of having photographed the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper during his tour opened the floodgate of opportunities for Parsons. A six-month videography and photography gig with Usher, a shoot with Lil Baby and an album cover photo session with Roddy Ricch followed.
Networking, the all-important job compass, led Parsons to Ricch for a last-minute cover shoot for Ricch’s 2019 album, “Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial.” Parsons’ friend and audio engineer MixedByAli recommended himto Ricch. Ricch was in search of something contemporary and stark: the Parsons touch.
Despite the pressure to outdo another cover photoshoot for the same album — and do so with a fraction of the budget in his LA apartment, Parsons flowed like he usually does, a thoughtful sort of flow. A portrait shot caught in the last couple of minutes of the photo session and one recognizable to Ricch’s fans became the album cover.
While simple, the Parsons work was not unintentional. Roddy Rich is pasted on a harsh white background, sharp black edges carve out his figure, the left side of his face is eaten by a shadow, and his expression wards off a public not present in the image. In addition to the creative direction of the image itself, Parsons engineered an antisocialness on set. “Because of that title [“Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial”], actually I purposefully did not talk to him that much that day,” he said. “I made it a way, so we kind of got that energy and that vibe of him actually being antisocial.”
The image garnered international attention for Parsons. Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, and Billboard all feature the art that is Roddy Rich’s album cover. But, Parsons’ humility–one retained from his Myspace and novice photographer days–remained intact. “I probably, I honestly, never really let it touch me. I’m probably so busy working that I don’t necessarily look at that stuff. I just want to keep getting better. I don’t want to necessarily get in a place where I get so comfortable or I celebrate those victories so much. But, at the same time, there should be a balance where you smell the roses all along. I could have definitely been better at that.”
Now, Parsons remains on his fruitful creative path. The photographer most recently shot an album cover for LL Cool J in the rapper’s childhood home and is working on deciphering creation of short films. He also continues his regular manifestation, elongating the list of ten dream celebrity clients, perched on the right of his computer screen, as others are checked off.
With an established career and industry wisdom under his belt, Parsons’ future probably holds a grand homecoming, he said. While he has contributed his photography to the Jessie Ball duPont Center, Parsons hopes to undertake more Jacksonville-based projects like premiering public murals, setting up galleries, teaching workshops to youth interested in photography, and even finishing his degree. After all, Parsons’ graphic design roots were planted in his family’s Jacksonville home.
These local roots–among many other sources of guidance–sustain a great photographer with grit, courage, humility, and ambition.
And so, our lingual darkroom experience comes to an end and as it does, I’m realizing an age-old and topical adage has been left incomplete: if a picture is worth a thousand words, the photographer behind the art is worth many more (althoughm I hope my 1,463 will suffice).
Up Close and Personal With Christopher Parsons
- Who inspired your photography when you started?
“I’d say, when I first started, I looked at, you know, the work of Gordon Parks, Helmut Newton, Peter Lindbergh, Annie Leibovitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Henri Cartier-Bresson, he was all about the decisive moment and that, you know, you couldn’t necessarily be impatient. I love Gordon Parks and his work, you know. I would see the emotion and the rawness in the black and white. Peter Lindbergh with fashion and Helmut Newton, I love his use of shadows and high contrast imagesl, and when you look back at my work, you can see pieces of all of them in my work.”
- You have a signature accessory that appears in a lot of photos taken of you: your amazing hat. I feel in my heart that there’s a story behind it. Is there?
“There is a funny story. I was photographing a friend [Goldie], and she was in town and she’s a model and she was in town from Paris. She had a white version of this hat, and she left it behind for a shoot, like, she was rushing so fast to go to the airport that she left it behind. And then when she left, I noticed it, so, like, kind of as a joke, I just started putting it on. And I was like, “Whoa, I kind of like this’ and my neighbor was like, ‘Hey, that hat kind of looks good on you.’ I just started wearing it and now it’s a signature. I’m actually working on designing these hats, and I’ll be making them available soon.”
- What makes your photography unique in a world full of so many photographers and now so many resources that mimic photography?
“I think it’s the feeling that my work gives. It’s one thing to see it, but with my work, I really feel it, you know. [Also], I really work hard to get to know a person, so that they can be comfortable and between a combination of the lighting and the music that’s playing, it evokes different moods. So when I started … I would flip through magazines super, super fast, and I would go to the photos that made me stop and study why they made me stop and that was always my goal. If there was a thousand photos on the wall, I want you to stop at mine and most of it [the uniqueness] is from the expression on someone’s face, maybe it’s the lighting, the shadows, and the mystery behind a photo and creating images that could be, like, stills from a movie.”
- How do you make sure that the shoot has the Chris Parsons’ touch? How do you make someone else feel comfortable?
“First off, it starts with — well, the studio has to be immaculately clean and smell good. My trade secret: I usually dash a little Fabuloso right before the shoot on the floor. I don’t know; I love the smell of it. And then, music is very important. I have a good vibe of music and then, each person, I can kind of, like, gauge their vibe of music, so it’s like a little dance with them, like, making them feel comfortable. And then at some point, I’ll put my go-tos on.”
- What was your scariest moment as a photographer?
“The scariest moment, which a lot of people can probably relate to, is when COVID hit and everything shut down. Work stopped for me. That was a very scary time in life for me for sure. It [work] froze altogether for a long time, and for some of that time, I came back to Jacksonville, and it was a very stressful time in life.”
- What is your favorite photo?
“I feel like I haven’t taken my favorite photo yet. I think I’m still in hot pursuit of it. I think my favorite shoot, yes, I think my favorite shoot has not happened yet … I think that day when I think I’ve shot my favorite photo, it’ll be time to put my camera down.”
- What is the best feedback you’ve received from someone you’ve worked with?
“I would have to say my friend Mackey. I photographed his grandmother at her birthday. I think she had turned 90 years old or something like that, and it was maybe, like, 10 years later, and I was on an old hard drive and I found these photos and I sent them back. I could just hear his appreciation for capturing that moment in time. I can’t remember the exact words he said but the feeling that I got from him was just very appreciative. I love when something like that can happen. That’s one part of photography: It’s like a timestamp, you know. The photo means something in that moment, but 10 years from now it means something even more, 20 years from now it just means even more not only to myself but to the other person that was on the other side of the camera.”