Parker Day‘s photos are an intoxicating view into the absurd, cutting cultural commentary through bright colors and exaggeration. Her latest series, ICONS, brings together 100 portraits of friends, artists and strangers, in an exploration of identity through social construction. With over-the-top characters that satirize gender, sexuality and societal rules, ICONS is an energetic treatise on personality and archetype, reality and fantasy, truth and perception—how you present yourself and who you really are.
Through vivid neon and optical illusion, Day plays with gender and presentation, analyzing the ways in which people express themselves through clothes and accessories. But beyond the photos’ theatrics, there’s a deeper duality that highlights the tension everyone faces—are you really who you say you are? Or are you who they think you should be? The images themselves show their own juxtaposition, with Day’s composition focused on hyperbole, and her subjects representing the anti-thesis of social convention. At the same time, their bold colors and glossy finishes leaves them looking like they’ve been ripped out of last month’s Vogue. But ICONS isn’t about shallow interpretation—in the same way Day’s subjects dress themselves up, her photos are masquerading. Don’t let their presentation fool you—they’re unretouched and earnest, a stark criticism of our vapid selfie culture. As a photographer, Day moves past the ability to deliver magnetic imagery you can’t take your eyes off. Her photos do exactly that, and much more. With ICONS, Day gives us an understanding of identity politics and an aesthetic orgasm.
BULLETT caught up with the photographer ahead of her opening at Superchief Gallery to talk David Lynch, Paris Hilton and iconography.
‘Many Faced God’
Tell me about ICONS.
ICONS is a series I started shooting in July of 2015, with the intention of creating a series of 100 portraits that explored the idea of identity construction and presentation through costuming and eccentric hyperbolic characters. My aim has been to blur the line between fact and fantasy, so you don’t even know if you’re looking at a real person or a contrived character, because really, we’re all a bit contrived—whether through our own invention, or the circumstances we find ourselves in.
What inspired you to do the series?
I’ve really been a chameleon throughout most my life, from my early teen years, exploring who I was and reinventing myself, then growing up—What career do I want to do? Who am I? What does that say about me? I don’t think we ever stop asking these questions. There’s this idea that you grow up and become a more fixed person, but there’s still just so much play and malleability—we always have the power to shift who we are, and our reality.
How do you explore identity through the images?
I really wanted to show that there’s great potential in how we present ourselves, and we have the ability to take control of that—we’re all eccentric characters. We tell people who we are through how we dress and how we present ourselves. If they accept that, then it comes becomes truth. So even if you put on a costume to the world, if enough people believe that’s who you are, that’s as good as who you are. If you tell people, ‘This is who I am’ enough times, they’ll start to believe it, and then you will—the fiction becomes fact.
What other themes do you highlight?
The series definitely questions gender norms, and I really like to play with gender identity. At the same time, my work is super inspired by comic books, John Waters and David Lynch, and this whole visual language of the absurd, with these hyper-eccentric technicolor looks.
Why did you decide to call it ICONS?
I came up with the name when I had just barely started shooting. They are real people, and they are characters, but they’re also symbols, and archetypes—they go beyond being real people and characters, to the point of being icons. They’re representative of something that is unseen.
You also recreated some iconic characters, like Barbie and Paris Hilton. Why?
An icon is a stand-in for something. I was thinking about how we talk about Marilyn Monroe as an icon, or Elvis Presley, and really they’re just symbols of sex, power, beauty, whatever. But they’re also just people. Where is the line between reality and fantasy?
How did you choose your subjects/their characters?
Whenever I’m looking for people to photograph, I’m looking for a quality I see in their eyes, I see in how they approach the world—I’m looking for a kind of raw power and a fearlessness, and I’m looking for people who embrace the potential of being.
You mentioned David Lynch and John Waters. Did you have any other visual references?
I am like a super absorbent sponge, and I’m always sucking in visual data. Then, when it comes time to come up with an idea, I kind of ring it out a little bit. When I’m shooting, I really feel like I have to get into this space where I feel present and clear-headed—almost like a meditative state—because I really believe all this data we’re soaking in all the time is just sloshing around in our subconscious. If you can be quiet enough, and be ready, it’ll bubble up.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
I really want to create a feeling, or a state of being. I would like people to feel empowered and inspired to create their own reality—to be whoever they wish to be.
There’s a real duality to your work—in one way, you pose the idea that identity is malleable. On the other hand, you show that even behind all the makeup and costumes, people are who they are—the identity you show the rest of the world versus who you really are.
I see in my work a lot of tension and mania and darkness, and I think that feeling arises from the tension of a disconnect between who you feel you are, who you present yourself as and how you think other people see you—yes, identity is malleable, but we are born into certain circumstances, whether they’re social or biological or time and space dependent, that’s the society we find ourselves in, and it can breed frustration. Things are only malleable to an extent because of those social constructs. So, there’s a feeling of being kind of upset by these circumstances. But what are you going to do? Ultimately, you’ve got to laugh in the face of it, and embrace the absurdity of it all.
ICONS opens tomorrow, March 4, at Superchief Gallery in Queens.