There’s a fullness about Parris Whittingham—an acceptance of pain and love existing at the same time—that would otherwise, in someone else, in a different profession, be confused with naivete. But Parris is a genius, and the way he captures love is exceptional. He calls himself a “relationship photographer”, but many of his works could be confused with plain old photography; he’s deeply tied to the act of familial archiving, and his images are intended to last for generations. But as everything changes, so do relationships, and marriage: Parris says he looks “forward to nurturing a wedding, media and publication industry that more actively engages, uplifts and honors this diversity of love and the modern American family.”
What is your working process like?
I was raised here in NYC in the 80’s by my mother and grandmother. These earliest childhood experiences shape my approach to photography and storytelling. Music, visual art, history, food and spirituality all came together in our home. At the same time, we each belong to a different cultural generation. My grandmother had vinyl: The Beatles, Miles Davis, James Brown, a handful of classical records like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and world music like Ravi Shankar and The Chinese Opera. I grew up listening to her music as casually as she did. The influence of eastern philosophy, meditation, yoga, vegetarianism and other practices was seen as unconventional in her day but completely normal for me.
My mother largely had tapes and a few CDs: Sade, Tracy Chapman, Stevie Wonder, Arrested Development and Chaka Khan. From her I learned about the emerging sounds and movement of hip hop. She let me buy records and watch movies that most parents probably wouldn’t allow but also, she challenged me to understand the lyrics and influences behind the music. My generation got MP3’s and with them, the craft of producing album artwork, liner notes, custom packaging and fully formed concept albums has largely vanished.
What aspect of your job do you find the most fulfilling? The most challenging?
Most of us will never own something built to last. Phones die after two years, hard drives fail and the quality of our clothes, furniture, cars, food and even building materials for homes aren’t what they used to be. Creating something that is extremely well crafted, something that will outlive me, then delivering that to a couple/emerging family, is the most rewarding part. Wedding photographs live in the hearts and homes of each family, for generations. This is the reason I am especially critical of photos that lack a sense of human connection or storytelling and instead rely on gimmicks.
You know the photos: where couple appears as props to be styled by the photographer. Sometimes they are “little” with great big natural backgrounds surrounding them, sometimes they’re inexplicably in the forest or on a glacier or mountain or near railroad tracks. These types of images may be great for brands who sell dresses, suits, shoes, and destination travel, but they have no place in a family album or personal collection that is intended to last generations.
The best photos are like healthy relationships, they invite you to return over and over again to discover something new. My approach is to identify and understand what matters most. What truly moves your heart? How do you want to feel before, during and after your wedding? What moments would bring tears of joy to your eyes fifty years from now? I offer a path forward to tell your story, like no other. If that feels like a good fit, we’ll do great work together.
In the future, what do you hope changes or improves (or continues!) in your field?
Weddings are the story of family. I know firsthand the value of these stories and the photos that tell them. Today my grandmother has Alzheimer’s and our once close relationship has been severely handicapped this disease. I miss the woman who put her own fathers camera (he was a professional photographer too) in my hands and shared families stories and photos with me dating back to the 1850’s.
I miss the woman who didn’t know 50 Cent by name but picked out his songs because she recognized the beat to “Wanksta”. The woman who had never heard of a “selfie” but insisted we take one after each visit. Weddings are one of the few times we gather everyone we love in the spirit of celebration. I look forward to more weddings that honor how diverse this spirit is. That it lives in each of us of all colors, sizes, faiths and orientations. I look forward to nurturing a wedding, media and publication industry that more actively engages, uplifts and honors this diversity of love and the modern American family.
Are you working on a new book or a larger project you’d like to share?
Currently working to catalog my older family photos and capture the stories plus historical records behind them.
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.