Parker Day spent her childhood in her dad's comic book store, poring over copies of X-Men and wishing she could cut her hair like Tank Girl. "I was basically left to be as weird as I wanted and had lots of time for my imagination to wander," she says.
Anybody raised on the kind of lurid, OTT comic books that were around in the 90s will recognize the spirit of the genre in Day's work. ICONS, her debut solo exhibition at Superchief Gallery LA in California, features a hundred portraits that wouldn't look out of place on a Marvel pull-out page. Club kids, performance artists, and internet personalities are rechristened with names like Mad Dog, Devil Girl, and Ginger Snap, and transformed into superheroes from a Pee Wee Herman and John Waters fever dream.
"I was shooting like mad, trying to latch onto a look and a concept that I could flesh out into a big, splashy series. At the same time," Day says, "I was jotting down notes about what I wanted to say with a body of work. I knew I wanted to explore the malleable nature of identity and how we are not just what we appear to be."
Day makes all the effort that goes into each shot sound simple, even though transforming people into green lizard freaks or goblin ladies can't be easy. "I'll ask a portrait subject to bring over some loud clothes and odds and ends we might use for props. I've got loads of stuff too, so we mix and match," she says, adding that she always asks for input. Her favorite shoots are the ones where she's engaged in a creative push-and-pull with her sitters, exploring and creating the image with them.
Then again, image-making seems to come naturally to Day. Other photographers may labor over a shoot with a single subject, but the kaleidoscopic variety of characters in ICONS is testament to her own imagination. "It's easy because I'm inspired by the people I photograph," she says. "They trigger a feeling, which inspires a caricature of that feeling, and I just let the pieces of the character's visual identity fall into place. I think of it as representing archetypes and using the touchstones of pop and subculture."
(Some of the photos below are NSFW.)
Next up for Day is the ICONS book, which will be released in line with her Los Angeles show. But she's already plotting her next series, which will feature two subjects in each photograph to "explore the feeling of disconnection between people." Will she ever photograph herself, I ask?
"I already have!" she says. "A gallery asked for a head shot, so what could I do?" She photographed herself staring straight down the lens of her own camera, dressed like a circus freak and accessorizing with smeared clown makeup and tiny little dolls. "I like how shell-shocked I look," she laughs. "I'm just sad I got the cropping wrong and didn't get my tattoo of a demon unmasking in it!"
ICONS by Parker Day opens at the Superchief Gallery LA on February 4.