10 Stunning Images That Will Totally Challenge Your Perceptions

Photographed by Parker Day.
Parker Day finds prettiness and perfection boring. The photographer's captivating portrait series Icons, which will be published in a monograph next year, staunchly rejects both of these tired concepts.

Shot exclusively on film and completely unretouched, the images examine the mutability of identity with a sort of childish glee. Day toys with the ways in which people define themselves: Her subjects, many of whom she finds online through their social media accounts, are often dressed up in eye-catching costumes — some of which they bring themselves — and given a cheeky prop to play with, such as a loaf of Wonder Bread or a wax dildo.

Day uses bright, flat colors and a bold aesthetic distilled from the many comic books she read as a kid. The images are infused with unabashed sexuality and playfully disrupt traditional definitions of masculine and feminine. Speaking to Refinery29 from her home in Los Angeles, she discussed the rich sources of inspiration for her project, and how to get people to let go.

Day's work is featured in Represent: 29 Women We Admire, a photo exhibit presented by Refinery29 on display at this year's Photoville, which runs September 21 through 25. Photoville is the largest annual photo event in New York built from repurposed shipping containers, combining photo exhibitions, outdoor photo installations, talks, workshops, and nighttime multimedia events in Brooklyn Bridge Park. It is free and open to the public. Ahead, a conversation with Day and a selection of her Icons portraits.
1 of 10
Photographed by Parker Day.
What first drew you to photography as a medium?
"When I was a little kid, my mom was always taking photos of me, so it was very much woven into the fabric of my life for cameras to be present. I begged her to get me a disposable camera; I was an only child and home-schooled, so a bit of a loner, and I would take my disposable camera and set up little scenarios with my pets and my toys in the backyard. I was really into expressing myself creatively with a camera and making worlds, even as a small child."

"Bad brains"
2 of 10
Photographed by Parker Day.
How did you come up with the project and what does “icon” mean to you?
"I was very deliberately searching for a body of work that I could create that would be cohesive and…in my exploration, I invited this girl I met on the internet [to sit] for a portrait. I had already started thinking about doing these old-style portraits. I’m really inspired by '50s movie magazines with their flat color backgrounds and kind of seediness. I was drawn to that aesthetic.

"We talked a bit about it, and she said, 'I want to do a look that’s sort of a sleazy porn director.'

"I knew I wanted her to have a prop because props always ground the character and the model. I happened to be in the grocery story in the bread aisle and I looked over and saw this Wonder Broad loaf with 'Classic White' on it — it just matched up. It’s still one of my favorite photos: She’s got this uni-brow and mustache and a shaved head, which is just who she is.

"When people work in a really intuitive way and have space and a little bit of courage, that's when the really interesting stuff comes out."

"By the Balls"
3 of 10
Photographed by Parker Day.
Do you come up with a narrative for them?
"It depends. Usually, it’s very simple and my direction is largely based on emotion, but sometimes I’ll have a vision of the character I want to create and then I find the person who can fulfill that role. I just toy with the character in my head and craft a narrative.

"For the third-eye waitress, I had this whole storyline for her about how she has lived in this nowhere small town and she’s kind of dead inside but she has a moment where she just breaks through. I spat this whole story out to my model just before shooting, and she just got it. I think it sort of shocked the self-consciousness out of her."

"After School Special"
4 of 10
Photographed by Parker Day.
How do gender and sexuality play into the project?
"I photograph a lot of women who are more masculine, men who are more feminine. What I’m preoccupied with is what’s underneath all these identities, what remains, what drives people, what makes us more feminine or masculine, regardless of our genitalia."

5 of 10
Photographed by Parker Day.
You’ve talked a little bit about the challenge of getting people to “let go” in traditional portraits. Is that part of the reason you style them in costumes? What are you hoping they’ll let go of?
"Their own construction of who they are. People spend a lot of energy on upholding who they think they’re supposed to be, presenting themselves how they think they’re supposed to look. It’s just exhausting…and it’s a barrier to real connection. By putting them in a costume, they’re not themselves anymore, so there’s safety in that, but [also] it’s showing that identity is just a put-on.

"So much of our identity is a construct, something that we can play with, something that is malleable. Of course, there are certain aspects of our identity that we’re born with or born into, but beyond that we have a lot of leeway. We’re seeing that in gender expressions that are outside of previous norms."

"Many Faced God"
6 of 10
Photographed by Parker Day.
What have been your greatest sources of inspiration for Icons?
"David Lynch, John Waters, old Hollywood magazines from the '50s, and comic books aesthetically to a large degree. My dad owned a comic book store and I grew up with this stuff — bold, underground comics with these bold, powerful characters and lurid colors really captured my tender imagination. I would wonder about these characters, looking at these comic books for adults (that I wasn’t supposed to read), and they really worked on my imagination.

"In the same way, I create these characters that work on my imagination. It’s not like I have them figured out — it’s play and discovery for me, too."

"Face Off"
7 of 10
Photographed by Parker Day.
Has social media influenced how you understand identity?
"Our social media accounts allow us to very deliberately construct how we want to be seen. We can edit things out and only put forth what we want to, which is interesting. I think there is power in it if you're aware of it. You can work that system.

"A big motivating factor for me is that expression of power; I describe a lot of the characters as people who have nothing left to lose. To me, they seem like people on the brink, capable of anything. That's a power born of the freedom to be anything. The world is wide open.

"With the Internet, with social media, there's a lot more power to make changes in our world."

"Shank You"
8 of 10
Photographed by Parker Day.
There’s a really playful element in your photos — it's almost like watching a kid play dress-up. Do you think it's easier for a young person to assume and shed different elements of their identities?
"Maybe as people get older they become more fixed, because of the illusion of security or whatever role that they play in society with a career and family. If you’re a teenager, you’re not expected to have that continuity of identity so you can play and explore more.

"However, I have always expressed myself differently and have been playing dress-up since I was a kid — and I still will be at 80."

9 of 10
Photographed by Parker Day.
Your work has a recurring theme of resisting normative prettiness or attractiveness. Is it something that evolved naturally or something you set out to challenge?
"It's because of my aversion to overly airbrushed images: The media, magazines, advertisements are so reliant on these perfectly photoshopped images. It's been like that for a long-ass time now and it's so boring! I hate editing photos like that because I always think that the original, straight out of the camera, is so much more interesting.

"I shoot film and I don't Photoshop [once the film has been processed and scanned for print]; I usually leave in the dust speckles [that can get on the negatives] because I want them to have that feel, like 'I didn't fuck with this. It’s real.'

"You know if you go to a flea market or a garage sale and sometimes you find an old cardboard box of photographs, and there's a feeling of discovery, like maybe you’ve found something you shouldn’t have? That’s a feeling I really like."

10 of 10
Photographed by Parker Day.
What are you hoping to explore in future projects?
"It's going to be in a similar vein, because I love what I'm doing. I'm interested in exploring more of the emotional content and the dynamic between two characters, so I believe I'll be breaking away from the singular portrait."