Meet the Fantastic Freaks of Photographer Parker Day's Subconscious
We caught up with the surrealist photographer in advance of her new show, 'Icons.'
Parker Day is a California-based photographer who takes saturated, made-up, and costumed, heavily art-directed portraits of beautiful weirdos. The photographs are visually stunning and deal with gender, identity, and gender identity. The oddness and artificiality of clothing and makeup are brought to the forefront. A lot of her models are young online party kids or artists. Some of her models include Molly Soda, my sister Penelope Gazin, and other stylish and goofy-looking youngsters that I'm not cool enough to be able to identify. Day's photos look like yearbook portraits from the coolest high school in the universe.
I started interviewing Day at Art Basel in Miami and continued it online. Her solo show Icons opened at Superchief Gallery LA in January and opens at Superchief's Brooklyn location this Saturday. Seeing the prints in person is great, and any event tied to Parker Day is sure to be full of all sorts of peacocking eccentrics. I recommend checking it out.
VICE: I first became aware of you when you photographed my sister, Penelope Gazin. Can you tell me about the process of choosing my sister, deciding how to have her makeup done, and the poses she did?
Parker Day: I had this idea for a swinging 60s glitter lizard knocking around in my head and was waiting for the right person to flesh it out. Sitting at my desk, my eyes vacantly wandered up to a painting by Penelope on my wall; it's of a teal lady with red eyes and ghostly tumors gasping, and bam! There it was, I knew Penelope was the one. Oscar Ambrosio is the brilliant MUA who painted her up and sprinkled her with glitter like a elementary school crafts project.
You mentioned to me once that you practiced the pose you had her do yourself in the mirror before photographing her.
Yes! If I have an idea for a shoot/character, I'll often practice in the mirror to see if it works like I think it does in my head. Sometimes I practice expressions and gestures in the mirror, not even for anything in particular. I have an animated silly putty face and often make the face I want my subject to [make], when shooting.
When do these characters come to you? In your dreams? When you're listening to music? Are they based on memories? Do you imagine them all hanging out together or alone?
They all come from the gut. When I'm running and my brain quiets down to a hum, visions pop through. Or I'll set aside the time to sit in silence and see what bubbles up. I'll have a notepad nearby to hurriedly jot down ideas as the come. Once one part of an idea pops up (like a glittery green-skinned lady), it's magnetized and draws more and more ideas to it until the only thing left to do is bring it to life.
Do you see your photos as self-portraits?
Definitely! Before I started this series, I remember having dinner with my oldest best friend, and I told her, "I'm going to shoot 100 portraits of the characters in my head." She looked at me a bit like I was crazy, but I was so fired up about it, and I knew that saying it made it real. I hope these photos are of something in between the subject and myself, something more symbolic and archetypal.
Your work feels super cinematic. Everything's posed and planned. Do you find more of a kinship with other photographers or with artists from other mediums?
I'm definitely sampling from a combo platter of artists. I love the experience of pure color when looking at Rothko, for instance, but then I get really motivated to shoot when I look at old black-and-white street photographers like Weegee, William Klein, and Diane Arbus. I look to their work for immaculate compositions and nuance of expression and gesture. Back to painting, I'm obsessed with Francis Bacon all around. He said something along the lines of "I want a very ordered image but I want it to have come about by chance," and that really resonates with me.
Do you want to move into making films at some point? Have you done anything where you've used moving images yet?
Maybe down the road, but for now I'm happy taking on the challenge of packing emotional and narrative content into a single, still image. Though I have done production design for short film and music videos, which I enjoyed.
It seems like you're pretty deeply involved in the LGBTQ community. Am I correct? Has that always been the case with our work?
Yes, I'm interested in photographing people who are courageous in how they present themselves and have strength in themselves. I find a lot of individuals within the LGBTQ community fit that bill. Maybe because when your identity is outside of society's default of being cis and straight, it makes you consider the meaning and implications of your identity more, how it's constructed and where you fit in. I do identify as a straight, cis-gendered female, but I've been questioning the truth of identity for as long as I can remember, since playing dress-up as a kid. I remember one time playing with my friend Peter. We were just little kids. He put on this spectacular gold lame gown and was very pleased with it. We went out to the back porch to show our moms how fabulous we were, we were beaming, but Peter's mother's face turned instantly cold and hard. She shamed Peter and ordered him to go change into his clothes at once and said that they were leaving. It was very confusing and upsetting for me, and I think it made me start questioning, in a nascent way at least, the significance of self-presentation.
Exploring costumes and gender identity was a lot of fun for me as a kid. Who have been your favorite models?
Ernie Omega is amazing! He's the one in H8 with the rubber wig and eight ball jacket. He really brought the emotion and intensity I was after and how brilliant is that whole look?! That's all Ernie, just with my direction. Gianna Geller (Bunny) was fantastic to work with, too. She's a born performer and just plain stunning. She's also smart as a whip and infinitely creative, so collaborating on her look/character was seamless. Uhuru Moor (God Bless America) was one of my first of the series, and I remember being so impressed with how fearless she was and committed to her performance in the shoot. I could go on! I love them all so much.
Are you big into Cindy Sherman? Do you get asked about her a lot?
I do get asked about Cindy Sherman a lot! I've never considered myself a super fan, but what I learned from her work is to work with what you have and what you know, and sink your teeth in and never let go. There's a lot of kitsch and "mistakes" and messiness in my work, which I own defiantly, and it's artists like Cindy Sherman and John Waters, too, who taught me to wear it like a badge of honor.
Do you feel like you're part of the photo scene or more like you're part of a different scene?
Yikes. Well, I've always felt like a bit of a loner (home-schooled, only child, hello!), but I'm comfortable with that and with traversing different worlds.
How'd you like your Juxtapoz feature?
Just fine, thanks! I remember when the very first Juxtapoz came out, and we had it at my dad's comic-book store when I was a kid, and it blew my tender mind. The artists in its pages have been inspiring me ever since, so it feels like coming full circle.
Tell me about your dad's comic-book store!
Wow, well, the smell of it was extraordinary. Think old books and records, musky carpet and Camel cigarettes. It was wonderful. Charlie Parker (who I was named after) was always playing. Golden wood shelves were densely packed, comics on top of comics on top of comics. Funky olive-green carpet. High ceilings. The walls above the bookshelves were completely covered in 60s rock posters, many of which my dad got from the venues when they were new (he was smart enough to snatch up stacks at a time). There was a big front window with a life-size plywood cutout of a Crumb girl in it, painted with R. Crumb's own hand. It was legendary!
Do you feel like you got more influence from comics than photographers?
Yeah, I soaked up comics like a sponge when I was at my youngest and most impressionable. I think a comic-book aesthetic is at the core of how I think in images.
Do you still have the giant Crumb girl painting? Where is it now?
God, I wish. My mom sold it at auction years ago, along with another one we had of a dog character. I know she was in a museum exhibit in Seattle a while back, but now it's a mystery! I dream of one day buying that Crumb girl back.
I found the Crumb girl!
Can you say the name of your dad's store?
Bob Sidebottom's Comic Collector Shop.
More photos below.