There’s two men floating in the air off to the side of Keap Street, next to the Marcy subway stop in Williamsburg. The two airborne people aren’t magicians, so they’re not exactly floating, but they are bouncing upwards of twenty feet in the air, springing vertically from an enormous trampoline placed next to a brick wall. The acrobatic maneuvers catch the eye of Ryan Parrilla, a 16-year-old photographer who comes down to South Williamsburg to capture snapshots of daily life beneath the rumbling train tracks. “Oh, we’re shooting this,” he says, running forward in a breach of his typically soft-spoken character.
The second Parrilla whips out his camera, the acrobats stop bouncing. Their lack of vertical movement doesn’t bother the photographer; he just shrugs it off, and continues his trek through the neighborhood, looking for elusive sunshine that’s been hard for him to capture the last couple of hours. “Today’s been slow,” he says, adding that photography has taught him the value of patience.
In truth, Parrilla is more than just a kid running around New York with a camera slung around his neck. As @Novess, he’s something of a photographic celebrity, boasting 97,000 followers on Instagram. His keen eye for New York City’s aesthetic landscape is the primary reason why his work is so well appreciated. His photos are at times stark and enlivening, and his portraits of the city’s various denizens range from the delicate to the ultra-gritty.
Although he routinely garners thousands of likes per Instagram photo, he didn’t necessarily become a social media superstar without a helping hand. He first met Dylan Hattem, his manager, on a rooftop shoot with some friends, and according to Parrilla, Hattem “saw something special in both my work and the way I handled myself.” One of Hattem’s primary goals is to serve as Parrilla’s publicist, pitching media to build out the young photographer’s brand. One such article orchestrated by Hattem was a blog post featured on Business Insider, which marshaled enough buzz to launch Parrilla’s Instagram account into the stratosphere.
“The outcome of that article was absolutely phenomenal,” Hattem says, noting how Parrilla has since garnered professional endorsements from Canon, appeared on national television in Australia, and shot on behalf of the United Nations. “His following grew to about 35,000,” as a direct result of the online frenzy following the Business Insider piece, Hattem says.
“I’m not famous in real life,” Parrilla admits with a minor smile, reinforcing the fact that he’s a regular kid who gets dropped off by his Mom to meet with journalists. The line between social media fame and the life of a high school junior isn’t nebulous to Parrilla, who says he tries to keep his popular Instagram account “confidential” to classmates. But that hasn’t always worked. As with any high school gossip, word spreads fast, and after one of Parrilla’s teachers followed him on Instagram, the passing glances of his peers soon turned to stares.
Parrilla says that toward the end of last year, “whenever I’d raise my hand, the whole class went silent.” The students at Vanguard High School suddenly came to see the quiet kid sitting next to them as Ryan, the “Instagram photographer,” but Parrilla shudders at the thought of limiting himself with such a categorization.
His photos live on the app, but the photo-sharing service isn’t an end in his pursuit of art. What he’s really doing is chasing down the many ephemeral moments the city has to offer. He’s looking for passing snippets of urban life that live as fast as they die.
“All we have is this moment. Certain things only happen once,” he says, looking down at his camera lens.
Parrilla’s interest in photography grew like any other hobby does, and he first started tinkering with one of his Dad’s old cameras when he was about twelve. He got his first professional quality camera when he was fourteen, but he had no idea it would take him so far in such a short amount of time. Hattem cites Parrilla’s uncanny ability to see architecture and geography in ways that other people just can’t.
In an email, he describes the first time he saw Parrilla shoot on his old rooftop in Manhattan:
Although I had previously seen his work, the day Ryan and I first went out shooting, there was something about the way he was setting up his shots that really caught my interest. While we were on my old rooftop in Manhattan, Ryan was on the complete opposite side of the 3 of us, looking for new perspectives to photograph. Even though I had lived for there a year, he was angling himself and looking for subjects that I had never thought of.
Parrilla’s remarkable talent has him eyeing a future full of travel, where he’ll be able to chart a path similar to the National Geographic photographers he used to idolize. He says he wants to go to Asia and the Middle East to shoot there.“The East has so much, they’re really spiritual out there,” he says. “You can really find out who you are as a person. Over here everyone’s just worried about money, they’re not really living.”
As Parrilla contemplates his future as a jet-setter, he pulls out a book by Nietzsche. He likes studying philosophy, and after reading thirteen pages of Between Good and Evil, he says “I’ve almost got it.” For Parrilla, reading philosophy has only helped to reinforce his reasons for shooting photos. Another book, Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, taught Parrilla “to not ever be angry,” and that human beings have the capability to “destroy our own soul.” Between these musings and his budding photography career, Parrilla sees a direct correlation, saying: “We’re born just as fast as we die… we only have this moment right here.”
Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster