Fred Parrish: Professor Who Pushed His Students and Saw Them Succeed

Fred Parrish. (Photo by David Poller)

By Tom Burton

As a professor at the University of Florida, Fred Parrish was adamant about what he expected from his photojournalism students: they had to take great care in their craft, write exceptional and accurate captions, be ethical, and tell stories. He is also remembered as a kind man who guided many students to exceptional photography careers.

His former students have been remembering their teacher since his death from a sudden heart attack on June 20 at his home in Albuquerque, N.M. Parrish was 75 years old.

He was quirky and mischievous, with curly hair that defied a comb. He was a curmudgeon with a twinkle in his eye. The students who came through Gainesville in the ‘70s and ’80s never called him Professor Parrish, but always “Fred” while he called them by their last names.

Parrish was a native Floridian who was a staff photographer in the 1960s for his hometown newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times. He served in the U.S. Information Agency as a writer/photographer, including coverage in Vietnam. Shortly after his return in 1970, he began teaching at UF where he stayed until 1987.

Parrish loved photojournalism but he also loved teaching and having deep, passionate discussions that sometimes verged on arguments.

“He liked his students thinking about what they were doing and not just doing it by rote,” said Mark Dolan, immediate past president of the NPPA and an associate professor at Southern Illinois University.

Dolan came to UF planning to be a writer but changed course after Parrish’s class. Parrish expected his students to study not just technical photography, but the history and ethics of photojournalism. Each class had extensive reading lists and slide shows of great photo stories. It was Parrish’s emphasis on storytelling through photography that lead more than a few writers to change their career paths and move into photojournalism.

Parrish was a tough critic, especially in class. One-on-one, however, he was known to be very encouraging and a good coach. He could steer students towards their talents, even when they were unsure.

“He was someone who could help you see a vision of yourself in the future,” said Tom Kennedy, NPPA member and executive director of the American Society of Media Photographers. Kennedy was a student in some of Parrish’s first classes at UF and later an adjunct instructor at UF.

Kennedy remembers that Parrish pushed the students to expect a lot of themselves, but to also push each other in a way that was competitive but not destructive.

“He understood we played off each other,” said Kennedy. This became a key to creating a photographers' community over the years where the students built each other up higher than they could have achieved alone, with Parrish acting as the North Star to guide them.

Jon Roosenraad, former chairman of the journalism department at UF, agreed that Parrish could be demanding. When a new building was built in 1980 for the college, Parrish was smart enough to command the entire lower level for a studio and labs, creating one of the best facilities in the country.

“He had high standards and although maybe a little rigid in his grading, was well liked by his students,” said Roosenraad.

Erica Berger, a New-York-based freelance photographer, was one of the few women in the photo ranks when she was at UF. After her first assignment in Parrish’s class, he pulled her aside and said he had serious doubts Berger had the skills to pass the class. She didn’t give up and neither did Parrish. Berger finished with the highest grade in the class.

Years later, Parrish included a Q&A with Berger in a chapter about women photojournalists in his book Photojournalism: An Introduction. Going from the verge of failure to becoming a literal textbook example of success, Berger is still grateful for Parrish’s belief in her.

“What if Fred had not been my teacher?” said Berger. “What would my life have been like?”

Parrish’s wife of 40 years, Tad Parrish, said he was always happy to hear about his former students’ success. His care for them had often started many years before in the classroom.

“He anguished over grading because he knew how important it is to students,” she said. He wanted to balance encouragement with the direction or correction they needed to advance.

Tad said her husband was the same person at home or on campus. He would make a provocative remark, followed by a wink and was never pretentious. He also continuously reinvented himself. Halfway through his tenure at UF, he took a summer off for a photo internship at the Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale. While other professors might have settled into recycling lecture notes, he was staying with his in-laws and covering high school sports just like his students had to.

Parrish promoted real-world experience. His course assignments included sending an entire class to cover a local seafood festival every year and guest speakers that would be attacked by a pie thrower accomplice, just to see which student in the class got the photo.

He also preached internships. Parrish arranged for one-week job shadow internships during semester breaks at newspapers around Florida. David Poller, an NPPA member and now a photo editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune, had more than one of those internships. The internships were known by the nickname “Flying Freds,” playing off the name of the popular NPPA Flying Short Courses.It was a catch phrase playfully hatched by the students.

“He gave people permission to have fun learning about photojournalism,” explained Poller.

Poller’s last “Flying Fred” was in his final semester at UF. Poller wanted to be sent to a small newspaper where he felt he’d have a better chance at making contacts and perhaps landing a job after graduation. For various reasons, Parrish thought otherwise and sent Poller to the Orlando Sentinel, a metro newspaper in Central Florida. As often happened, Parrish saw something the student didn’t. After his one-week internship and shortly after graduation, Poller was offered his first staff job. It was at the Orlando Sentinel.