Under the title ICONS, LA-based photographer Parker Day portrays members of America’s modern day tribes. Urban freaks shown in bold colors, as if in an ad or a cartoon. Mind you, all is not what it seems. Partly staged, these portraits are often a combined effort between artist and model, celebrating originality and individuality, yet reminding us that a mask, any mask, is always but a mask.
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Parker, you were born in San Jose, but live in LA. What’s the good, the bad and the ugly of America’s City of Angels?
LA is an odiferous potpourri of good, bad, and ugly! Which element is up to your discretion. It’s a great place to be an artist, especially now. There’s a feeling here that you can be anyone and that wealth and fame are just a step away (or skid row for that matter). Maybe it’s because the idea of Hollywood, of film and fantasy, is so woven into the identity of the space that it feels like anything is possible.
You grew up in a comic book store. What were your favorite titles as a kid?
Yes, my dad Bob Sidebottom’s Comic Collector shop! X-Men in the ‘90s was great and Spiderman and Spawn. But it was the “forbidden comix” by the likes of R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, and Bill Griffith, that truly left a lasting impression.
It seems comic books in terms of, say, bold colors and big characters are still a source of inspiration for you as a photographer.
Naturally! Diving into what was warping my tender adolescent mind is endlessly inspirational.
Can you tell us briefly how you became a photographer?
Everybody is a photographer. I’m becoming known for a certain style of art photography because I’m putting in the work and being as fearless as I know how to be in expressing what’s true for me. And whatever pixie dust there is in being “authentic” and “real” and all these other buzzwords that get bandied about, the work has to connect with an audience in the time and place you’re working in. And you have to put in the work! Making your own luck is essential.
You are known for your hyperreal portraits of America’s “wild and weird”. They seem real. Yet in fact they are, partly, staged. Let’s take “Barbie”. Can you tell us a bit more about how the image was created?
“Barbie” is a bit of an atypical case. That’s Alees Yvon and I shot her as part of a series of portraits I shot in NYC in a very limited time frame. I asked everyone who came to the session to bring some clothes and prop options. I picked Alees because of her look and the energy that comes through in reher Instagram photos inspired me and I think she really connected with the work I do, so it was a natural collaboration. Shout out to Raisa Flowers for the immaculate make up!
The mask is an element that regularly returns in your work. Does it have a metaphor for identity?
You got that right. That’s the whole idea: the impermanence of identity.
Your series of portraits is called ICONS. Why’s that? Are they the faces of America’s young, bold and beautiful? Or aspects of American society?
It’s called ICONS because an icon is representative of something without actually being that thing. An icon is a symbol which holds meaning for the culture that perceives it. I try to play with symbolic representations of people. Because I’m shooting them individually and with bright colors and crisp lighting their image is screaming “look at me! I am somebody!” But who? Who are they?
“Mickey Monroe” reminds me of Warhol and LaChapelle. A tongue in cheek homage?
It’s actually a direct homage to a Ron English painting. I have a personal connection to the styling because I played with plastic-faced, cloth-bodied Mickey and Minnie dolls as a kid, just like the ones used here. I loved them dearly. The Mickey’s for the shoot I bought off eBay. And hacksawed half their faces off.
There’s this rawness about your images, which add a tremendous charm to them. It’s kind of like what drag does to fashion. Why’s that? Do you ever see yourself doing a very polished series?
Polished and overly edited photos are just so dull and tired. Boring! Give me drama and flesh and flaws and life!
You seem to have a love- hate relationship with fashion photography. Why’s that?
I love clothes and how transformative they can be. But so much fashion photography is boring! Models that are so serious, stylists that are so serious, photographers… Where’s the humor? Where’s the FUN? The industry as a whole takes itself far too seriously.
If there’s one celebrity you could portray as part of your ICONS project, who would you pick and why?
Genesis P-Orridge. S/he is endlessly fascinating and part of the joy of what I do is connecting with people I find phenomenally enjoyable to be around and to create art with. Genesis has such a powerful presence and possesses that quality that I can’t quite put my finger on but that I’m always looking for in my subjects.
What artist or photographer really blew you away in 2016?
I’m gonna go with Roger Ballen. He’s not new to the game but he’s perennially inspirational. Go Google him to see for yourself. I wrote him an email not long ago and he was so kind in response. To anyone reading this, please write little love notes to the artists you admire! It’s such a lovely thing to do.
In February 2017, the Superchief Gallery in LA will show ICONS. What else has 2017 in store for Parker Day?
A book for ICONS as well. From there I’ll be working on my next series which I have lots of big ideas for and that I’m looking forward to realizing.
INTERVIEWED BY PETER SPEETJENS