At just thirty-three, Alex Prager is already as golden as that famed Los Angeles ‘magic hour,’ a photographic term used to designate the first and final hour of sunlight during day. In this highly desirable light, shadows are less dark, contrast diminishes and highlights are much less likely to be overexposed.
Prager’s images, foreboding in their large-scale, are stylistically suggestive of Sirk’s Technicolor, sharp and saturated moments hinting at repression, with the turbulence of emotion suspended in surreal cinematic glamour. They exude a suspense some have likened to Hitchcock, where a determined uneasiness pervades. Yet the heroines, as all her subjects are women, have a certain clarity and confidence of being, assured as they are of starring roles in the tundra of melodrama that comprises each still frame.
A photographer who untiringly taught herself technique in her twenties after being inspired by a William Eggleston photo exhibit at the Getty, Prager disarms with a kind of Gothic innocence, untainted by art school theories about how to position her work. Although her images are unambiguously synthetic in their staging of scenarios that women, named Rita, Wendy, Jane, or Cathy, might daydream themselves into, peril lurks, beneath surfaces, and before, as well as after, the instant so dazzlingly captured.
As a native Angeleno, Prager grew up a shade east of Hollywood in Los Feliz, where her grandmother raised her until she flew the coop. Her unconventional childhood gave shape to a nomadic existence, and the ensuing flux complicated her receiving a more formal education. Shuttling between SoCal and Florida, where her father lived, and Switzerland, where she sold knives one summer at the age of fourteen (!) and returned to for a few years, she took to exploring Europe for months after her seasonal job ended. Still Los Angeles based, she mines the myths that permeate this city to expose a melancholic, noir poetry in the remnants of feminine dreams on the brink of being dashed, albeit brightly in the constant saturation of California’s sun.
Her raw spiritedness has hooked in many tastemakers, even garnering her a MoMA show, in 2010, where she participated in the New Photography exhibition. Her photographs are also in the permanent collections of several major museums including MoMA (New York), the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Moderna Museet (Stockholm). Prager has won an International Photography Award, as well as a Lucie, and publications such as Art in America, Vogue, Details, i-D, Tank, Dazed and Confused, New York Magazine and New York Times Magazine count her as a contributing photographer while she continues to exhibit her work to critical acclaim in galleries internationally.
Fabrik caught up with Alex Prager, after a choice gig making a fashion film starring Dutch model Lara Stone for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and before she finishes mounting Compulsion, an upcoming show of her new work, which opens simultaneously in Los Angeles (M+B Gallery), London (Michael Hoppen Gallery) and New York (Yancey Richardson Gallery).
Fabrik: Growing up in Los Angeles as you did, how did you personally encounter the sense of artifice and melodrama that permeates your aesthetic?
Alex Prager: This city has many facets. It is a good city to come to if you have big dreams. That said, a lot of those dreams can either become forgotten, slowly fade, or get brutally crushed all in one fell swoop when met with the more devious side of LA. It’s a wicked city ripe with melodrama.
The avant German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder once said, “Love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression.” Hints of turbulent emotions, seething just beneath, and sometimes even above, the surface, also inform the narratives you construct in your photographs and short films. How do you frame your fashion and editorial work with regard to this particular idea of love, as some thing dazzling, uncertain, synthetic, and surreal? Do you see your work within the specific context of ‘magazines’ as advancing any alternative narratives about women and what we are made to understand is their ‘beauty’?
I try to keep my aesthetic when working on commissions. Sometimes they let me have full creative control in all areas, sometimes not as much, but so far I’ve been pretty lucky in producing things that are true to my vision.
Besides working, how do you have fun in Los Angeles?
I like to cook or eat at Flore, go hiking, play tennis in Griffith Park, drink wine with friends at Edendale, or Blair’s. I’m more of a daytime activity sort of person…I’m not really into going to clubs or anything, but I do like the occasional karaoke.
MoMA curator Roxanna Marcoci has described your work as “intentionally loaded” with “something pregnant, about to happen…” Whether still or moving, your images play with the element of suspense. As an artist and/or woman, what about uncertainty or ambiguity entices you?
I like leaving a story on a wall that still needs filling in. The idea that a total stranger might see one of my pictures and put their own take on it. Or try and figure out what’s going on in the picture based on what they’ve experienced in their own life – that’s really great. A lot of times I’ll hear stories far more interesting than what I might have made up. I think my role as an artist is to spark the imagination in others.
You have described Los Angeles as a place that is both beautiful and magical. Please share something about its beauty as well as how, and perhaps where, magic is still intact here.
It’s a very photogenic city. I’ve lived here my whole life, born in Los Feliz, and yet almost everyday I find myself staring at something in wonder as though I’d never seen it before. How is it possible that the sky has so many different shades of blue on its way down to the horizon? I think the light in this city makes everything look a little bit surreal. It’s very magical indeed.
What, if anything, seems impossible in L.A.?
Public transport. I like that they’re trying to put in more bike lanes here and there, but come on. This city really needs to take public transportation seriously and start making it happen. It would make it so much better. That’s the main problem with LA.
You travel quite frequently for work. When away from Los Angeles, what do you long for that is still here?
My own bed.
Much of your work has a decidedly cinematic aesthetic, where you also reference and romanticize, as well as complicate, the myriad ways in which we understand and depict the 60s, 70s and early 80s eras. These periods seem so crucial with regard to defining certain notions about individuality and personal freedom from the restrictions of ‘society.’ As you continue to explore moving images, through your short films Despair and the soon to premiere La Petite Mort, what do you hope to say about how and what we see, as the ‘compulsive spectators’ we have become?
I suppose I just really hope you like the photographs and film enough to want to look and make your own conclusions. I can only give my take on what I’m feeling in the world, but everyone is feeling it in different ways. Maybe technology has been able to give us the impression we’re really connected because we know what’s going on, but I personally feel very disconnected sometimes. Especially when reading about some of the less thrilling things going on in the world that I feel very emotional towards but can do nothing about. It’s a false connect in a way and gives me a bit of a helpless feeling towards it all. I’m left staring at my computer.
Prager’s new work furthers her exploration of subversive narratives through the construction of “scenes” inspired by media tragedies and paired with emotive close-ups of eyes. The eyes, whether interpreted as belonging to the viewer or the subject, operate as a mode of investigation — an aid to decoding the scenes and implicating the viewer by provoking an emotional response.
Inspired by the photography of Weegee and Enrique Metinides and films such as Metropolis and Un Chien Andalou, Compulsion confirms Prager’s vivid cinematic aesthetic. Unlike her previous work, however, the protagonists now remain anonymous and distant. Prager’s new series investigates the complexity of observation within a society inundated by compulsive spectators, as well as the recurrent discourse in photography—that “meaning” is often derived from a multiplicity of gazes.
What is the most profound way in which Compulsion, your new series of works (opening at M+B on April 7th), differs from your previous work?
I’m not sure the fashion magazines will be as keen on hiring me.
In addition to provocative juxtapositions, Prager manipulates the scenes through her choice of cropping, continually interrogating the truth content within photography — a trope as old as the medium itself. As artist John Baldessari has noted: “For most of us photography stands for the truth, but a good artist can make a harder truth by manipulating forms… It fascinates me how [one] can manipulate the truth so easily by the way [you] juxtapose opposites or crop the image or take it out of context.”
Prager’s altered and manufactured scenes, in conjunction with the evocative eyes remove the images from their original context and allow them to acquire new associations.
In her new short film, La Petite Mort, starring French actress Judith Godrèche, Prager navigates the mysteries of death through a woman experiencing the boundaries of her body and those of this world. Prager’s La Petite Mort (which literally translates to “the little death,” but is a common French expression for an orgasm) declares that “the act of dying and the act of transcendent love are two experiences cut from the same cloth — the former a grand exit, and the latter a slow escape. Indeed, many of the world’s greatest poets have long have long considered a passionate interlude as man’s closest moment to seeing god.” The film features music by composer Ali Helnwein and Director of Photography Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, Iron Man, Requiem for a Dream).
Within your work, much has been made of the influence of Weegee, Enrique Metinides, Guy Bourdain, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, David Lynch, Fellini, Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock. Who are some photographers, filmmakers and artists not mentioned here whose work affects you emotionally?
Lucian Freud, Balthus, Breugel, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Joel Sternfeld, Bruce Gilden, Maya Deren, Jean Cocteau, Luis Bunuel…and the list goes on and on.
Do you collect art and if so, whose works might we find in your collection?
Yes! Vanessa Prager, Mercedes Helnwein, Asger Carlsen, Clint Peterson, Bryten Goss, Justin-John Greene, Mel Kadel, William Rugen.
On March 13th, an international jury chose Alex Prager as the winner of the Foam Paul Huf Award 2012. The annual prize is given to a photography talent under 35 years and consists of €20,000 and an exhibition in Foam Amsterdam. Prager’s work will be shown from August 31st to October 14th, 2012.
The Foam Paul Huf Award continues to attract portfolios from all over the world. Out of 100 nominees this year, 49 were from Europe, 13 from Asia, 19 from North America, 6 from South America, 3 from Africa and 10 from the Middle East.
The jury was quoted as saying:
We would like to recognize the incredible diversity and richness of nominations from all corners of the world. Our shortlist resulted in a select group comprising the very best in contemporary documentary, fine art and conceptual practice. In our unanimous choice of winner, Alex Prager, the jury recognizes work that draws brilliantly on different but complementary threads in the photographic tradition, but that nevertheless results in a fresh and distinct voice in photography today. The jury would also like to make special mention of Noémie Goudal as runner up, whose work stood out for its complex treatment of form, structure, landscape and environment.
The chairman of the jury noted on the winner:
“Alex Prager’s work is original, intelligent and seductive. She thoroughly deserves her place in the company of former Foam Paul Huf winners, which is fast becoming a who’s who of contemporary photographic practice.”
The members of the jury were: Simon Baker, Chairman (UK, Curator of Photography an International Art, Tate) Nathalie Herschdorfer (Switzerland, Director International Photography Festival Alt. + 1000) Darius Himes (USA, assistant-director Fraenkel Gallery / Co-Founder Radius Books) Vasif Kortun, (Turkey, Director research and programs, SALT) Viviane Sassen (Netherlands, photographer).
Also part of MOPLA (Month of Photography-Los Angeles), Alex Prager’s upcoming exhibition will feature a selection of color photographs from the series, as well as her new short film, La Petite Mort, with accompanying film stills. The exhibition will be shown simultaneously in Los Angeles, New York and London. Compulsion runs from April 7 through May 12, 2012, with an opening reception for the artist on Saturday, April 7 from 6-8 pm.
For more information on this and other MOPLA events, workshops and lectures, please visit: www.monthofphotography.com
Exhibit: Alex Prager – Compulsion
M+B Gallery, 612 North Almont Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90069
April 7—May 12, 2012
Artist’s Reception: Saturday, April 7, 2012 from 6 – 8 pm
Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am – 6 pm, and by appointment
Words Aparna Bakhle-Ellis
Images Courtesy M+B Gallery and Alex Prager