Parker Day is a photographer based out of Los Angeles, California. She is currently working on ICONS, a collection of 100 character portraits captured on 35mm film. The project is a celebration of self-expression and individuality. ICONS will be presented in a gallery showcase in Los Angeles in February 2017.
How do you choose your ICONS?
There has to be a strong personality that presents itself. I like people who are dynamic, who have an edge. I look for people who are not afraid to express themselves or to explore who they are.
How do you find these people? Are they people you know, or do you scope them out online?
It's a combination. I spend a lot of time on the Internet looking for people, but it's hard to get a real feel for who they are, so it's usually best when it is a friend or a friend of a friend or if the person is an artist. I can usually get a good sense of who they are through their art. Then I know there is a good chance that we will connect and put something awesome together. That's really the best because it becomes a collaborative process where I'm inventing this fantastical character with my subject. But there has to be some real part in it - otherwise it is just a person in a costume!
How much of the portrait is your identity and how much of it is their identity?
The line is not clear. It is a reflection of me and how I feel, but that only comes out if it is the right person, and, on top of that, they have to trust me and feel comfortable enough to be performative and not pretty. There has to be a rapport, and it has to be built very fast.
What are some of your influences?
I think about identity and transformation and how everything we use to present ourselves to the world is a facade, and how that is a form of expression. So I'm very conscious of how physical presentation is a tool for communication and, in creating these costumes that are really hyperbolic and over the top, it's an extension of that expression. It's jolting - it makes you wonder about the person. I'm always inspired by people I see on the street who have a very strong personal aesthetic. When I see these characters, I think they are just this rare breed, and I always want to know who they are and what their story is. Then that gets my imagination going. I want to see more of that in the world. There's this 15-year-old kid in the neighborhood. I saw him twice when I first moved here. He was wearing a pink suit on a low rider, just cruising around. I saw him another time and he was wearing an all white suit, but this time with a hat, shoes, the works. And I thought, "Who is this kid? He’s amazing!" When you see someone like that it brightens up your day. It sparks curiosity.
Do you have a preconceived idea of the characters people will be portraying before they come over?
Somewhat, but only very loosely.
Are you influenced by drag culture?
Definitely, again it’s about playing with the potential of your beauty and physicality. Its an amazing way for people to explore who they are, and I think when people become someone else and put on a facade, they are more freely able to express themselves which is really interesting.
Have you ever stopped a stranger walking down the street and asked them to take a photo?
I'm kind of shy in person, so no, I haven't. I want to. I'm revving up. I feel like having the Internet as a tool, you are able to lurk people so you can figure out what their deal is. At least there is the illusion that the person you are reaching out to is not a total stranger. You can know their social media identity, and that makes it easier to approach them. It's just an illusion though. That person is not any less a stranger than the random kid on the street, but there is a perceived preexisting connection.
I have a funny personal anecdote. I can relate that sentiment to how Tinder connects your Instagram. You feel like you can trust the person more. It's weird how that link makes them seem more like a real person, and the whole thing seems less sketchy.
Yeah, we make assessments of people based on what they project on their social media. We’re constantly scanning this type of information and it forms impressions. But we have to ask ourselves: is that the real person? Is it even accurate? Or are we just seeing what they want us to see?
Thanks for showing me around your studio. Your prop closet is amazing.
I saw this Cindy Sherman documentary once and she had an amazing, organized prop system. That’s my dream.
Were you influenced by Cindy Sherman?
Of course. I think it's pretty apparent in my work. I always liked her film still series the most. I remember learning about her way back when I was in art school, and I liked those images a lot because they are very powerful representations of women and are innately playing with the performative nature of photography. I never thought she was a shining idol and then I started working in this vein. I guess a little Cindy got into my subconscious.
How did you get into photography?
When I was a little kid my mom gave me disposable cameras, and then when I was in high school, I took a photography class. My mom asked me one day this really pivotal question, "What do you want your life to look like when you are an adult?" Do you want to go to college? If so, where? I pictured my whole life being filled with art and freedom and creativity. I discovered photography when I went to art school (The academy of art in SF.) But I don't think art school is necessary. You just have to start doing what you are passionate about. That’s how you really learn. There are so many resources out there like YouTube. People can talk to me over the Internet, and I will give them advice. It is so easy to for people to connect now and learn through those connections.
How has your work evolved over time? What were your projects before ICONS?
So let me give you the backstory. I went to school, dropped out, and then I was working for an accessory company shooting bedazzled handbags for ladies in the Midwest that lunch. Then I got let go. After that, I was a nightclub promoter and did event promotion. Then I went to beauty school and was doing hair. I reached this point a little less than two years ago where I realized I was not happy, and I needed to figure something else out. A friend of mine asked me to take some photos of him for his styling final - and I was like “Okay, I guess,” and it all just felt right. You know that moment when you are doing something, and it just clicks? And you think: “This is what I need to do!” With that realization, I decided I was going to go for it, and I started shooting a lot. And when I shot the first time, it was in a style that was different than what I was use to. I was actually scared to post it. Ironically, it's the one that everyone loves the most. It was shot right here in that little chair, and I was going to post it on facebook, and I was worried it was too weird. Is anyone going to like it? Are they going to get it? Or will they think it is too gross and strange? I was surprised there was such a positive response. That was instantly validating. I was initially scared to post because I was afraid to share my real art. It felt vulnerable to post it, it wasn't the hot L.A. babe on the beach that we are so accustomed to here. But after I got such positive feedback, I was like ‘Alright let's do this!’
Yeah it's a beautiful photograph but it's definitely not the perception of American beauty.
I was looking at successful peers on instagram, trying to decide if I should make work like that. I would try, but it wouldn't look the same as theirs, and I did not enjoy the process. If you follow your intuition, you know what you are suppose to do.
Is there anyone you are particularly excited to work with in the future?
I want to do more portraits with musicians and celebrities. I think it's a really fun challenge to take someone who already has a strong public identity and fuse that into my aesthetic to create something completely new. I had a taste of doing this when I worked with Chelsea Wolfe, photographing her for The New Yorker.
Did you know her beforehand? How did that collaboration happen?
I had met her backstage at her concert a few years ago because we had mutual friends, but then the photo editor of The New Yorker reached out to me just to talk and then that came up. “Parker, I think you are perfect for this assignment” and then coincidently my mood board and Chelsea's mood board were almost identical. We even had one of the same images.