Trying to tell somebody what you loved most of Parker Day’s model portrait photography after one look is like being asked which part of a landscape you noticed while riding a roller coaster. Windswept and twitchy, you’d probably pick what’s most obvious and readily brought back to mind. “I don’t know — the blue sky, I guess,” you’d probably say. This is also true with the Los Angeles photographer’s portraits. They are high energy. All the loud character, fluorescent greens, and candy-apple reds, captured in vibrant 35mm film, have a way of making every detail jump out in high speed until all that’s left to remember is color.
To be fully appreciated, each portrait should be seen slowly and with a careful eye. Not doing so may cause you to veer into a funhouse of interpretive strands, making the ride a little too bumpy. There’s a lot going on, and her portraits celebrate this particularity: they both relish the fine detail and also recognize a particularity individual to every person. Together, they’re a triumph of difference —even if they’re emboldened by color and persona. What better way to satirize heteronormative ideals than to offer a world of three-eyed waitresses, chocolate-eating mermaids, or disco-dancing mutants? Is it a bit campy? Sure, but it still makes you wonder who these characters are being compared to. Which imagined sameness are they supposedly transgressing? Give me more of this than anything normal and sane, I say.
I spoke to Parker Day about her model portrait photography work over email.
Let’s start with a few questions about your thoughts on photography. Are you comfortable with photography? I don’t mean comfortable with your ability to shoot it. I mean, have you ever found yourself wondering about its strangeness?
Definitely. We still think of photography as documenting reality, but at the same time we’re used to photographs being staged or having heavy digital interference. We often expect the images we see to have been doctored. I think we want to believe in authenticity but we’re suspicious; we don’t want to be duped. This sets up a tension that makes us question the reality of what we’re seeing. It helps bring us to a realization that there is no inherent truth or reality. Everything is beautifully warped.
How did you get your start in photography? How would you describe your work?
I feel like I’m just starting now and I’m at the beginning of a great journey. My work is based on my ideas about the fluidity of reality and of identity. But my visual language has everything to do with the fact that I literally grew up in a comic book store: The Comic Collector Shop, owned by my dad, Bob Sidebottom, in San Jose, California. There were a lot of grown up comix I was forbidden to touch, and I was a very respectful youngster where it came to art, but I would gaze intently and repeatedly upon the covers of Zap Comix, Love & Rockets, Cherry’s Jubilee, and so on, and ponder what it all meant.
Did you ever feel like giving up? Were you ever unsure of your talents?
I did give up for a while. I was a nightclub event producer/promoter. I went to beauty school and got my cosmetology license. I lived other lives. I came back to photography because it feels more right than anything else I’ve known. I’ve also been unsure of my talents. I spent too much time comparing myself to others and invented obstacles for myself like:“I’ll only be successful if I work with famous models,” or “If I use designer clothing,” or “If I have fancy shmansy equipment.” That’s all bullshit! Create from what you know with what you have and build on that. That’s all it takes! Thinking otherwise is your mind playing tricks on you out of fear and protection from the unknown.
To take a question from one of my favorite writers: does shooting photography help make the anguish of life more bearable?
Haha! I love this question. And yes it does! When I’m shooting, I get to connect with a person, create a new reality with them, and get a keepsake from it. And then I share that with others and hopefully inspire them to create. I see the anguish of life as the feeling that we’re alone in this world. But so what!? If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing. Being a philosophical nihilist with a penchant for the ironic, I approach everything I do with sincerity but I don’t take much of anything seriously.
You say that you’re able to channel darkness when creating your work. I’d like to know what darkness means to you. What exactly are you channeling?
Darkness is the unknowable void where all potentialities live; where there’s no good or bad, it’s all sloshing around together, in a place of pure power.
This is one of my favorites. Could you explain how it was made from start to finish? What’s the story behind it?
I saw a blank practice make-up mask at a beauty supply, and it got the creative juices flowing. I had the idea to have a woman peeling her face off or putting it on with a knowing grin. The white face is white because I wanted her to be a blank slate. I enjoy the idea of reptilians or cyborgs or other creatures passing for human. I find it very relatable.
Do you have a favorite character that you shot? What about this character did you like? Is there any correspondence to your own life story?
I love them all like my precious children! But I’ll tell you, I’m really enamored with Raccoon Girl right now. That’s a photo of my friend Camille Mariet, who is a talented photographer herself. Her Raccoon Girl character is drawn from my memory of The Raccoon Lady, a neighborhood character where I grew up who was a demented bag lady. She was always raving unintelligibly and caked in thick, black eye make makeup.
What have you learned about yourself from shooting these portraits? Any epiphanies?
I’ve learned to have faith in my own bad taste. If I feel something real creating the work and in sitting with it in the editing process, chances are people will connect with it. I believe people get out the energy that I put in, though that energy may be warped and perverted in transmission (all the better).
All images © Parker Day. See more of Day’s model portrait photography work here.