A Couture Model’s Behind-the-Scenes View of Fashion

Photo: Louise Parker

A few months after she graduated with a photography degree from Bard in 2012, model Louise Parker got her big break: an exclusive contract to walk in Hedi Slimane’s debut runway show for Saint Laurent. “I don’t know exactly why I was chosen but I was happy that I was,” she said at the time. Since then, Parker, a Minnesota native who is now 24, has appeared in editorials (and on the cover of i-D) walked runways for numerous designers — including Chanel and Dior — and been shot by some of the industry’s top photographers, including Alasdair McLellanRyan McGinley, and Roe Ethridge.

And, over the course of her two whirlwind years in the industry, Parker has documented it all, taking photographs of her world nonstop. She captures quiet scenes backstage while she’s waiting for a show to begin: a conversation with other models; what it’s like to get your runway makeup done. Her work is a compelling account of what it means to be a model today, told from inside — from a uniquely female gaze.

Parker’s images are more relaxed and intimate than other backstage pictures you see. “I think when I ask to take a picture of one of my friends or even a girl that I don’t know as well, they’re not trying to pose or look sexy or super-beautiful,” Parker tells the Cut. “They just end up being more themselves.”  (Parker is now represented by the modeling agency the Society, known for its power lineup of multi-hyphenates.)

Fresh off couture week — where she walked the runway for Giambattista Valli, Chanel, Dior, and Dolce & Gabbana – Parker spoke to the Cut about being a model and a photographer, how the two jobs have helped each other, and what she hopes to do next.

I know you majored in photography at Bard. When did you start taking pictures professionally?
I knew that I had to take advantage of the position that I was in; so many people are interested in the lives of models, and I felt it was a great opportunity for me to start documenting my modeling career. When I initially began photographing, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with the photographs, and I still don’t really — but I think that in the end I hope to put a book together, a whole collection spanning my modeling career.

There must be so much waiting around and downtime in modeling. What’s the environment like?
I keep somewhat to myself and try to have a book on me — and that’s a reason why I love having my camera on me. It’s a lot of hanging out and chit-chatting. Sometimes I feel like I’m back in high school during my free period waiting for a class to begin.

Do you think your fellow models are more comfortable around you than they are with other photographers?
Yeah, I think so — I think when I ask to take a picture of one of my friends or even a girl that I don’t know as well, they’re not trying to pose or look sexy or super-beautiful — they just end up being more themselves. I really hope they feel comfortable. I never try and take a photo that would put them in a bad light — I’m not trying to exploit them or use them to my advantage or portray them negatively. It’s definitely not about that.

So many backstage photographers are men. How do you think your perspective is different because you’re a woman? How do you think your female perspective changes the pictures that you produce?
I think honestly the biggest difference between me and the other backstage photographers is that I’m taking these photos for myself. I’m not worried about taking X amount of beauty shots; I’m just focused on telling my story. I guess more so than being a woman — I’m one of the girls, I’m one of the models, I’m really telling our story. I can relate to the models; I can understand where they’re coming from.

No one wants a camera shoved in their face when they’re changing or trying to eat a quick lunch. Backstage photographers can be pretty aggressive. It can be pretty overwhelming and exhausting to constantly be photographed. You’re trying to look good and make the clothes look good.

When you say you’re taking them for yourself, what do you mean by that? What’s your larger goal with the photos?
I’m just trying to make a diary of my modeling career and just take advantage of the access I have to this exclusive world, or whatever you want to call it. I started doing it two years ago knowing that maybe someone would notice it. And it’s helped me continue to practice my photography. I didn’t want to stop taking photographs after college.

How do you think your career as a photographer has helped your career as a model, and vice versa?
When I was studying at Bard, fashion photography was kind of the last thing that I was interested in. But I’ve grown to have a lot more respect for it now. The more I work with fashion photographers, the more I see that art and fashion can be blended in a really beautiful and natural way. It’s really difficult to make a fashion story that feels really original and fresh. There are so many aspects that you have to get right: the lighting; the hair and makeup. I don’t know, I guess that’s gotten me thinking about all of those things. I don’t know how my background in photography has made me a better model, but it’s definitely made me a more curious model.

Do you have any big career goals you want to hit?
I definitely want to keep modeling, keep shooting. I would love to shoot other projects that don’t have to do with fashion or modeling — but, without sounding narcissistic, it would be really cool to shoot an editorial where I photograph and model in it. That would be a dream.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

A Model’s Behind-the-Scenes View of Fashion