Parker Stevenson Interview: Life Through the Looking Glass
Image attributed to Parker Stevenson
Richard Stevenson Parker (Parker Stevenson) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 4, 1952. At an early age, Stevenson acted in numerous commercials and guest starred in such television shows as Gunsmoke and The Streets of San Francisco. But it was the role of Frank Hardy in ABC’s Sunday night series, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, that catapulted him into the limelight and made him a “teen heartthrob.”
The sixty-year old actor/director also has enjoyed a lifelong passion of being on the other side of the camera lens. He is an acclaimed photographer known for portraits, landscapes and headshots and operates the studio Shadow Works.
“What I love is shooting portraits. It’s sort of an odyssey to go on this journey with someone. I know it’s uncomfortable, and it feels like you have to do something, but the more I can get someone to just be there and not feel like they have to do anything, the more interesting the shot is.”
Stevenson was married to actress Kirstie Alley from December 1983 until they divorced in 1997. The couple share custody of their two children, William True and Lillie Price, whom they adopted.
Parker Stevenson: I love your last name (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It is also great for a first name.
Parker Stevenson: Yes, it is.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Thanks for speaking with me today, Parker. Your photos are awesome.
Parker Stevenson: Of course, my pleasure. Thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When did the interest in photography begin?
Parker Stevenson: I’ve always shot. When I was fourteen, I was shooting weddings, which wasn’t a good idea (laughs). All the way through school, I was printing, and in college I was studying architecture. For years, most of my photography was landscape and architecture. People were hard for me to shoot. I just felt it was sort of intrusive, and I was embarrassed and uncomfortable. Then, about five years ago, I had some people come to me and ask me to shoot headshots. To help out, I did a bunch of headshots and found out that I loved it. But the headshots I shoot are really more portraits. I just shoot them in the context and the constraints of what a headshot is.
What I love is shooting portraits. It’s sort of an odyssey to go on this journey with someone. I know it’s uncomfortable, and it feels like you have to do something, but the more I can get someone to just be there and not feel like they have to do anything, the more interesting the shot is. I started doing that, and it just turned into other stuff, and I really started to shoot seriously for myself and for some exhibits. My personal stuff is pretty out there, but as you saw on the website (parkerstevensonshadowworks.com), it’s more commercially oriented and more traditional. This book that came up was kind of a godsend. Have you seen the cover?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, The Jetty, very nice.
Parker Stevenson: I really started to focus on my fine art photography as a new career, sort of a new beginning of sorts. I read The Jetty, and said, “Wow! I have some ideas about what would make a good cover.” The author said, “Do it.” I went and shot my vision of what the cover should be, and they loved it.
The book was released a few months ago. I went down to San Antonio where they had a pre-launch party. It’s a great read, a sexy, kind of gothic thriller, and contemporary but very gothic. It was just great to be a part of it. I did a friend a favor, but for me it was a way to get a great cover shot for a book and continue on this new path I’m on.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are there particular photographers you follow or admire?
Parker Stevenson: The only photographer that I felt really shot me well was Herb Ritts, and he shot me a couple of times. I think a lot of it was that I was just so comfortable with him. He had such an easygoing way about him. I think Herb has always been in the back of my mind.
A photographer called Lillian Bassman (who passed away last year at age 94) shot in the 50s and 60s. Her stuff is exquisite. She was doing fashion, but was really pushing the envelope shooting fashion. Those two photographers are very different, but there’s a grace about them and a drama about them that’s really beautiful.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned that you studied architecture.
Parker Stevenson: At Princeton.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you enjoy architectural photography as well as shooting headshots and landscapes?
Parker Stevenson: Well, I did that a lot for years. I traveled and shot architecture because I found when I was directing that you can order the world as you think it should be and as it’s supposed to be and rarely is. You’re too high, too low, you’re too much left or right, things line up or they don’t and that blows the composition. Yet, when you shoot either staging a shot directing or doing still photography, you get to present the world as you see it, as you wished it was or as you hope it could be. That’s what I love about it, and the same thing in shooting people.
There will be moments when the person is really there and accessible, and there’s a grace and a beauty about it. It doesn’t matter if they’re pretty or not or handsome or not. They’re still beautiful, and that’s why I shoot.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you do your own post processing?
Parker Stevenson: I do. I did for years when I was shooting black and white. Unless you’ve got a darkroom right there and everything set up, it’s just cumbersome. You send them in, wait a couple of days, get your negatives on a contact sheet, squint at them and say, “Let’s blow up these ten. But the blacks aren’t black. What happened? They’re black in the image, so why is the print so grey?” They’ll say, “We’ll do it again.” It comes back and they’ve re-cropped it somehow. It drives you nuts unless you have a printer that’s just sitting there doing your printing. I was slow to switch to digital.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think most photographers didn’t want to change in the beginning from film to digital.
Parker Stevenson: I love shooting digitally now because from the very beginning all the way to the finished print … it’s mine. I have one printer I love that I use for oversized prints. They’re huge, so sometimes you do have to go to someone, but I’m still giving him a finished image exactly as I see it and then he prints that. But having the ability to immediately see the image and immediately adjust the image as you want it to be is glorious. That’s part of that making the world as you want it to be.
I started really early as an actor, commuting in and out of Manhattan. I’d sit in the trains an hour each way, and the billboards would flash by like a movie. You’d look out the window, and the billboards were like bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. They’d sort of freeze for a particular instant in your sight, and it was like a crash course in images for me. I did it for years sitting in that train just watching these graphics go by, and that’s probably what I push for now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s in your favorite camera bag now, Parker?
Parker Stevenson: A 35-300 zoom lens and a Nikon D700. That combination is perfect for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Seems that there are either Canon people or Nikon people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are some great tips for all the budding photographers out there in the world?
Parker Stevenson: Buy a used camera. There are beautiful used cameras that may only be a couple of years old, but they’re a 10 Point which means they’re perfect in the original packaging and all that stuff and they’re like a brand new camera, but they’re not. You can get them for half price and camera bodies are so expensive now.
Someone who really wants to get more serious about it should find a camera they love that’s a couple of years old. Find one that’s in great condition used. All the big camera stores carry used equipment that they stand by that’s in beautiful condition. Then, shoot what moves you. If you see something and feel your breath kind of catch, shoot it because there’s something there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever drag your camera along to television or film sets?
Parker Stevenson: No, and I wish I had. I didn’t because I was so focused. I’d think, “Okay. I’m going to work as an actor today and learn my lines.” There’s a lot of set decorum, and you’re always making an effort with people and making other people comfortable to make it go smoothly, so I never did. But I wish I had because I worked with some wonderful people, and that would’ve been just nice to have.
I’ve shot celebrities and celebrities’ kids, but that’s not what I’m reaching for. Those are just people who turned out real interesting to shoot, but that’s not why I shoot them. For instance, on The Jetty, I originally sent them about 25 images knowing they would be overwhelmed, but I wanted them to have choices because they’re emotionally really different, all of which I felt were right. It just depended on which way they wanted to go as the authors and publishers.
When I spoke to them, they said, “We love them, but we don’t know.” I said, “This is what you do. Don’t think about it. Just look at the images, and the ones you keep coming back to, the ones that kind of keep surprising you, those are the images.” The same thing goes when you shoot. I used to spend so much time composing and making sure the focus was right and light was right that I’d miss the shot. Once you have it roughed in, you start shooting. You can’t think about it.
You just have to shoot when you know to shoot because otherwise, you’ll be a half second too late. You’ll miss the imagery of that instant that made you respond. It really gets to be instinctive, and inevitably the images I love are in that kind of microsecond when the energy is just right and the person is really there. They’re about to break a smile or they’re having a thought that only lasts a fraction of a second and you can see them. You can really see them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have photography shows?
Parker Stevenson: I shot a roller derby here in LA for about nine months. Some of the images are up on the website. They’re of a roller derby, but I’m shooting something mythical, something Greek, something way out there. I shot so many images and have been going through them carefully trying to really knock it down to 12, but they’ll be huge images. I hope to do some portraits to break up the giant images of the roller derby of some of the girls.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ve asked at least two professional photographers if they take the time to observe the rule of thirds with the risk of losing the shot. Both of them said, “No.”
Parker Stevenson: I’m more aware of that when I see the image and it’s almost right but not quite right, and it’s because of one of those factors sometimes with some of the lenses I use because of the shift over to digital (some of them are re-digital lenses). They don’t show in the viewfinder exactly what will record on the sensor and that can throw it off. But when I first really started shooting, I’d take time to really set everything up and discovered that actually it’s nice but boring. It’s predictable.
More often than not, what happens is after I’ve shot for a couple of hours, at the end of the shoot, the light becomes very minimal. Those are my favorite images. So I sort of end up breaking the rules and actually not even thinking about the rules, just following what feels right. It’s interesting that they said the same thing. You shoot what moves you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, you do. Parker, are you concentrating primarily on photography now or are you still acting?
Parker Stevenson: I’m still acting, but I’m definitely focused on this. I get up in the morning and edit. I get up in the morning and make calls to line up shoots. This is really where my focus is, but I have not stopped acting. I love acting. But you’re a cog in the wheel. You’re just a part of the overall picture.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your mom introduced you to acting at a young age?
Parker Stevenson: Yes, she did. She had done theater, and as a kid, she’d take me to these plays in summer stock. We’d watch her in a show. My mother was always taking me into New York to see plays. She was, at that point, doing commercials when I decided I’d give it a try. I got work, so I kept working.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did The Hardy Boys have a positive or a negative impact on your life?
Parker Stevenson: It was more the positive side although I do wonder if I should have been shooting all along instead of acting. I catch myself because you can’t second-guess. You can’t go back, but I had come out of Princeton not quite ready to commit to architecture and was going to NYU business school when I got offered The Hardy Boys. I thought, “Oh, okay. I’ll go do this for a bit.” That really sent me off on that path. I had already done three features and 120 commercials and had worked a lot, but that really kind of set me going forward more purposefully in acting.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That made you a household name.
Parker Stevenson: Yes. It sort of made my decision for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you still in contact with former co-star Shaun Cassidy?
Parker Stevenson: I see him maybe very nine months or a year. He lives up north now, but when he comes down into town we’ll have dinner every now and then. We’ll talk about kids, family and life and what we’re up to. It’s really neat because I actually didn’t expect that. It’s more normal that you get really close to people, and when the project ends, you go in different directions. I even occasionally see Pamela who played Nancy Drew. It’s always great to see them. Really great.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any upcoming acting projects?
Parker Stevenson: I have one project in development as a producer, but those are always ongoing. At the moment, it’s just photography.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you married now?
Parker Stevenson: Nope. Single.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any plans to marry?
Parker Stevenson: I don’t have plans yet, no (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Comments on Kirstie Alley’s life or health issues?
Parker Stevenson: Not having been married for sixteen years, I’m afraid that I’m not the person to ask … and religiously we were never on the same page. What I do know is that we have two wonderful children; True now 20 and Lillie 18. For that, I’m so grateful, and I adore them immensely.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are they interested in the arts?
Parker Stevenson: My son is a musician, and she’s an aspiring clothing designer, so they have picked their own paths, which is great. That’s what it should be. You go after something you like doing, the rest will come. If you like doing something and you have the talent, you will find your way.
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