A few years ago, Richmond, Virginia-based visual artists Jada and David Parrish found themselves stuck in a creative rut. The daily grind of their photography business combined with the global pandemic had taken a toll, and their passion-turned-business started to lack a bit in the passion department as they found themselves consumed with projects that didn’t challenge or inspire.
Realizing that they had entered a creative dry season, Jada and David began to seek out new inspiration and direction, first in the work of Peter Hurley and Lindsay Adler after attending WPPI, and later on the old fashioned way of pouring through a variety of art and photography books.
The couple agreed that they wanted to focus on studio photography and branch out from the work they were currently doing, so they bought some color backdrops and began to experiment. What they didn’t know at the time was that their work with color paper backdrops in 2020 would ultimately lead to a year-long labor of love in 2021, when they set a goal to create 100 portraits featuring intricately designed and painted plywood sets.
The “100 Set Project,” as they simply call it, was as much a challenge to their creativity as to their stamina as artists. As part of the project which began on January 1, 2021, they decided that each of the 100 images would be planned and implemented in a single day, which meant that the elaborate sets in each image were built, painted, and photographed in a single 24 hour period. Jada recalls an Elon Musk quote which helped them to take the first step. “If you give yourself 30 days to clean your home, it will take you 30 days. But if you give yourself 3 hours, it will take 3 hours. The same applies to your goals, ambitions, and potential.”
So we wanted to build a new portfolio as fast as we could,” says Jada, “and having this project motivated us.
With a background in theater set design and carpentry, David’s focus was on building the sets and lighting them. Jada was the photographer and chose colors, clothing, props, and worked with the models (many of whom were amateurs), to create the final images. The photo and art books they were reading, as David puts it, “added to the drinking water,” and helped them to solidify their vision for each day’s shoot. Another important ingredient in their process was their decision to not feel forced to portray their models “at their best,” as Jada says, and instead, let their newly emerging creative vision dictate the poses, clothing, and makeup of their subjects.
A Labor of Love
As if the idea of coming up with a concept, building and painting an intricate set, finding the right props and models, creating excellent lighting, and conducting the photoshoot – all in a single day – wasn’t enough, Jada and David further pushed the bar by firmly deciding that this project was going to be completely non-monetized. All 100 sets, and no compromising.
The whole thing was about trying to find our voice. Before, it was more like a service I was providing, so it was a voice of what people wanted, and I really wanted to know what could come out of my mind and what I could express and what Jada could express without any rules or guidelines.
Jada, regarding compensation, adds, “It was very intentional that we didn’t want to accept any money for this project, we really just wanted it to be purely us, what we wanted to say, and not put limits on our creativity in any way.”
David remembers, “It was super stressful. Some days we would wake up and have an idea, and other days no idea at all. Each shoot was a different experience for us.”
But, starting their day with a cup of coffee and pouring over various photo books for inspiration, they would come up with an idea, or go on to pick out clothing and props if the idea hadn’t materialized yet. Next, it was off to the paint store and then right to the studio to build their set and paint it before their self-imposed 6 PM deadline, when the client arrived for the session.
The new project quickly took a life of its own, partly because Jada and David posted online about their ambitious goals, and partly as people began to see the results. The duo quickly began to push the boundaries of their own creativity. “I wanted a lot of color and lots of different work,” David says, “that represented the new voice we were finding.”
As they found their new voice, the community also found them.
“Once they started to see this whole world we were creating, they were really excited to be a part of it,” Jada explained. The couple quickly began to gain notoriety for the novelty and beauty of their set designs and images. After a while, models were excited to be part of “Set number 42,” for instance, and became invested in the collaborative process with Jada and David. As 2021 progressed, and their images pushed the boundaries of what could be done – literally inside the box – they caught the attention of Peter Hurley himself, who was extremely impressed with their work.
And, even though they began to receive requests from companies for similar projects, the duo remained steadfastly committed to completing their 100 Set Project with zero outside influence.
Fast forward to 2022, with their 100 ambitious pieces completed, I met Jada and David in late January when they were invited by Peter Hurley to speak to the Headshot Crew about their work. A week or so later, I interviewed them for this article while they were in Los Angeles and about to take on their first paying client, now that their portfolio has been completed, and their goal of creating something new and unique was clearly accomplished. As of today, they are also phasing out the wedding component of their photography business, and lining up new clients who are glad to pay for art that they want to create, and that they conceived on their own terms.
To say Jada and David are an inspiration is an understatement. By focusing on their own artistic vision, and foregoing the “safe” path, they did what few photographers are either willing or able to do: They created work that inspired them and brought their artistic vision to life, and let the clients find them.
This concept is wholly lost on many photographers, as often we feel the need to give our clients “what they want.” But some clients don’t know what they want until they see it, and unless we, as artists, are willing to bring our own vision to life, they will never know that what they want is exactly what our artistic sensibilities bring to life.
I asked Jada and David what advice they would give other photographers who feel stuck in a rut, or who want to break out of their current creative box and do something completely new and unique.
I would first start by saying, it’s not going to happen overnight, and you shouldn’t expect it to,” was David’s first thought. “It’s also going to take a lot of work, because you do have to pay bills, you do have to keep your grown up life going, and you have to willing to take the sacrifice of all your energy… you have to work two jobs, basically. Put your heart and soul into it, and let yourself be free.” he added.
Jada added, “Start small. Just start to do something, and from doing things that aren’t spot on, you start to realize what it is you want to achieve and just continue to push yourself to do that and don’t wait for that magical moment of inspiration to strike. It ends up being really interesting what you can make when you sort of force yourself. Don’t expect it to be perfect. Just keep doing it one day at a time, one step at a time.”
As of the publishing of this article, Jada and David have become Paul C. Buff ambassadors, and collaborated with a number of companies including Mexican clothing designer Thais Perez Jane, Miami-based We Love Colors, LA-based social media company PearPop. And I am sure that this is just the beginning for these two talented artists as they grow their passion project into a brand new business.