April 10, 2018

An Interview with Parker Day

Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by Lou Noble.

Photographer Parker Day works nearly exclusively with analog film to create bright, bizarre worlds. She talks about being an art school weirdo, the process behind the multi-era campaign that she created in collaboration with us for “Still Got It” – and the creative ways she brings the characters from her imagination to life. 

What did you do before you started working with photography?

I dropped out of art school, because it was just a very commercially driven art school, and I felt like they didn’t want to nurture the little weirdo soul inside of me. I got disillusioned and had a period of several years where I floated around, explored different things. I was a nightclub producer and promoter and I went to beauty school and got my license, so all of that kind of feeds in. I wanted to have the career of, say, David LaChapelle, someone who did things their own way but then enjoyed commercial success. So when I was in school in the early 2000s, there wasn’t a viable path for me, at least not one that I could see. I didn’t want to make posters for a chain store to sell, my work needed to hit the viewer on some visceral level. If there’s no emotional resonance when you look at a photograph, what’s the point? It’s just decorative art.

How did you find your path back to the world of visual art?

I was cutting hair and making good money but I just wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t feel like I was firing on all cylinders and signs kept pointing to there being something more. The more I opened up to that, the more I realized it was photography. Just little opportunities, little whispers kind of came my way. I was shooting at events, which is an amazing boot camp for photographers. Low light, people moving fast, it’s crowded and you’re trying to capture a moment and frame it well and get your exposure right. I was also shooting digitally on location, working with the eccentric people I knew. Either they would self-style or I would style them, or a combination. But I realized that there was something missing in the end result – it was emotion. I knew I wanted to get more feeling out of my subjects. But I needed something more. Because the photos were just looking like unconventional fashion photos.

Is that what brought you to shooting on film instead? Why do you think film become so important to your process?

We are all just energy, and that takes many different forms and faces. So I want people to be able to see a little bit of themselves in these characters. The one thing that’s universal to us as humans are emotions. Authenticity is central to my work. And shooting on film feels real. I think it has a quality and a texture to it that has a little bit of human grit, you know. There’s literal grain there, and I think there needs to be that human heart to it and that presence, wrapped in this kind of fantastical universe where you don’t quite know what’s real and what’s fantasy. The more you just allow yourself to come through, the better your work will be. I don’t care what kind of work you do. I mean, hell, if you’re on Wall Street as an investment banker, or an athlete, or an artist, you have got to get to that place of letting it flow through you.

How important is storytelling to your work?

I think storytelling infuses an image with some kind of context or enriches it. When I’m shooting, I do like to tell little stories to the subjects that I’m working with, and kind of help them get into character. Just in directing them I’m very physically animated, so I will do the posture and make the face to help them get into it. But if you direct them through mirroring and gesture, it’s very intuitive, because we all mirror each other. The story helps bring the character to life. It brings the model outside of themselves. I feel like it’s easier for someone who’s outside of the mainstream to get noticed nowadays and tell their story on their own terms – because you can choose the platform you want to use to show your work.

What draws you to a particular subject?

I like people who don’t seem particularly attached to their persona. People who seem to embrace the flexibility of self-presentation, so I love working with club kids, or actors, performance artists, artists in general because they embrace the role-playing and the character creation that I want to explore with my work. Like what’s that line between reality, how they are in real life and as a fantasy character? It’s important that they be fun and appealing, too. That’s what lures you in.

What are you hoping the viewer experiences when they see your work for the first time?

I want people to feel sucked in by the candy-coated colors, and then be a little repulsed by some of what they find there. That they have this experience of push-pull-push-pull, and stay a while and work to understand it. I think when you look at a photograph, you’re trying to make sense of it, and if there’s nothing to latch onto, you might get frustrated and move on. Equally, if there are only things to latch onto, it can be too easily solved, and you move on. There’s got to be something that resonates with people, something familiar, but also an element of the unknown. Something that makes you wonder, a puzzle that keeps you thinking. That’s what makes an image stay with you.

Is photography a very social activity for you?

Definitely! Being an introverted person by nature, my work gives me a beautiful ruse to interact with people. I have the confidence to approach anybody and invite them over to share this experience and forge a short but meaningful connection. It’s so satisfying. And then there’s this beautiful document at the end of it that we can both enjoy. I feel like I’m providing value, and it’s not just putting myself out there, but putting my work out there.

What role does nostalgia play in your work?

Playing dress up is how my shoots go down, it’s exploring this alternate or potential self, which is very satisfying on a deep level. I think even for those of us who are seemingly comfortable in our outward identity, there’s still this kind of curiosity about who we would be in an alternate life, or if certain things had gone a different way, you know. We interact with the physical world largely through symbols and there are certain cultural symbols that we’re all very familiar with. Think how a lunch box is connected to a schoolgirl for example, and I look for ways to explore that. So yes, nostalgia is tied in, because nostalgia is like this fantasy around a generation maybe we didn’t even experience.

So you use it as an active tool?

I never like to be too on the nose about anything, but I love how in eras past, the clothes were much more flamboyant and fun, and now everyone kind of wears the same thing. I love the seventies, so maybe I feel nostalgia for that. Even though I didn’t live any part of it I still feel connected to it through shared cultural perceptions. And come on, the clothes back then were fantastic!

Did your process differ when creating images in collaboration with the Polaroid Originals creative team for the Still Got It campaign?

Well, we had been talking for months, and I think it was just a matter of finding the right opportunity to work together, and coming up with the right creative concept. I’m grateful that they created a concept for the campaign that was totally tailor-made to who I am as an artist, and to be respected as an artist by a brand that I respect in return. It was really cool to have this kind of back and forth so that we could both shine. We chose two characters from each decade, and group photos and product photos, and styled it to be decade-specific. It was really fun. I really liked the sixties one…or the seventies or the eighties! [Laughs]

And how do you enjoy using a Polaroid camera in your process?

I love it! It’s been really fun shooting Polaroid photos at the end of my shoots, it’s kind of the cherry on top of what I’ve been doing lately, where I’ll use Polaroid Originals film with some of my strobes. And what I do is give one to the model so they have a nice take away, it allows that.

How’d you cast for this series?

My manager and I, with my assistant, we just explored all of our resources, scoured the internet, and it fell together very easily. It was a mix of people we knew personally or had heard about. Like Frances Davis, who’s in her 80s. She’s a gem. As soon as she walked in the door on the shoot and we knew the diva of West Hollywood had arrived! Mark, who was our “born in the sixties” characters, he runs the Tom of Finland Foundation. There’s this beautiful old craftsman house in Echo Park, so in advance of the shoot, we went over there and visited with him, picked through his leathers to see what would work. We knew we had to get Baddie Winkle, she is amazing, she’s such an inspiration. For being fearless, dressing how you want, and being who you want to be. We cast her for the nineties, and it was really cool to be able to put people from older generations to the forefront in a major national campaign.

There’s a lot of representation in your work. Is that intentional or do you just happen to be real woke?

[Laughs] Oftentimes my work gets discussed in a queer, non-binary context – or trans, which is cool by me. I’m happy to represent those individuals, but in my mind I simply want my work to be as broad and as expansive as I can get, while still being true to who I am and my aesthetic.

Do you find that the character you choose for your subjects is usually closer or farther away from who they actually are?

You know what’s funny is, so often I’ll have an idea in my head of what I want to do with them, in terms of styling and character creation, and then they’ll come over, and I’ll tell them about them, and show them some pieces, and they’ll say, it’s so funny you want to do that, because there’s something from their own history that relates to it. This has happened to me a spooky number of times!

How do you think your work has evolved over the past year?

I am definitely getting more introspective about it more conceptual as I go along. I think I’m going deeper, trying to mine these ideas for all their worth. I feel like “ICONS” was my first big project, and it was an exploration of what I want to do, who I want to be as an artist, and now that I’ve kind of built that framework, I want to find out what else is hidden within it. I wanted to strip it down, like literally. Because my last project was so much about exploring identity through costume. I wanted to explore the body as the costume, and the different aspects of the means of performance. The series that I’m working on right now, “Possession”, is mostly nudes. It’s a little more conceptual in nature. It’s forty-six nudes oriented all in the same way, each dealing with an idea of what it means to inhabit a physical body. But in a cheeky, playful way, it doesn’t have to be so serious. I’m almost done, I’m about to do a self-portrait for it and going forward I’m going to put myself in everything I do. I’m going to be a Heavy Metal magazine cover – with a sword, and a giant wig, and I’ll be holding my severed head by its mullet. [Laughs]

Do you feel the need to challenge yourself as an artist?

I always want to create something that I’m proud of and I want every single next shoot to be the best shoot and every time I’ve finished a shoot, I’m hoping that it’s going to be brilliant, and I’m always striving for that. There’s not really that many moving parts to my work. There’s a backdrop, there are lights, there’s a singular person. And yet, there’s so much to balance. As I produce more work I do see certain common threads, such as exploring the malleability of identity, and how much freedom we have to play with the boundaries of who we are and who we can be. The result is also the process because it’s the process of forming the next image and developing who I am as an artist.

Find out more about Parker’s process on her Instagram feed.