Alex Prager was born in Los Angeles in 1979. She was raised by her grandmother in a small apartment in the suburb of Los Feliz and her curious and restless nature was evident early on. Her nomadic upbringing saw her splitting her time between Florida, California, and Switzerland without truly settling down long enough for a formal education.
Prager’s interest in art began in her adolescence, but it was in her early twenties that she began to focus on photography after being inspired by the work of William Eggleston. In keeping with her independent spirit, she eschewed art school and began taking photographs on her own, teaching herself equipment and lighting through trial and error.
California’s palm-lined streets, intense sunshine and abundant blue skies are embedded in our cultural consciousness. The city is the epitome of the American dream, imbued with cinematic characteristics and symbolising the promise of perfection. It attracts those seeking reinvention, or who simply desire to become something they are not – but buried just beneath this fantasy lies a potent sense of unease and existential dread.
This tension is the lifeblood of Alex Prager’s practice. Her large-scale film and photographic works utilise the tricks and tools of Hollywood to expertly portray the haunting side of the human psyche. “The city itself was built on artifice,”. “It’s a strange alternative reality. There is perfection on the surface, but the underbelly is right there and if you dip your toe in just a little bit, it gets ugly, weird and strange. I’m constantly examining these hidden layers.”
Her interest in photography was born out of a visceral reaction she had to an exhibition by William Eggleston at the Getty Museum, she says: “It was such an overwhelming moment for me; I was struck blind by vision. Before that I had all this energy but I was using it all in going out, travelling, paying way too much for clothes and sushi. I knew there was something bigger out there for me. I always had this feeling that I could do something which could affect other people.”
“I learned the technical parts of photography that I needed to know for the next picture I wanted to make. I started out with lights from the hardware store and slowly upgraded. I was never that interested in the technical – my focus was always on storytelling” – Alex Prager
Prager masks these dark emotions with a seductive retro aesthetic referencing post-war photography in tandem with the work of cinematic icons like Hitchcock and Lynch. Her aim is to traverse time, blending elements from the 40s up to the present day. “I love the idea that nostalgia makes us feel safe and comfortable because we have seen it before. I love the concept of familiarity because it gives us this false sense of security. The past always seems nicer than the present, but who fucking knows what it was like back then. We just don’t know, but that past give us that feeling and I love disorientating people.”
“I love the concept of familiarity because it gives us this false sense of security. The past always seems nicer than the present, but who fucking knows what it was like back then” – Alex Prager
Prager’s vision isn’t easy to realise. She works with a large team of stylists, hair and make-up artists, cinematographers and sound designers. The projects are meticulously planned down to the specificity of every single wig and eyebrow. “I start off with rough sketches then sometimes I create collages or write stories,” she says. “I have meetings with my team, we will discuss it, and people can bring up anything they want. It’s a safe space, as we all know each other so well and it’s great to get input from other people. When I shot La Grande Sortie, we brought out my entire team and 13 bags of costumes props and wigs. We knew if we had tried to source everything in Paris it wouldn’t have been the right thing. I wanted Le Grande Sortie to have an American viewpoint of the Paris ballet.”
Over time Prager has developed a very personal way of utilising the tools of Hollywood to explore the interplay between truth and fiction. The lines blur in her meticulously crafted images challenging the audience’s implicit expectations. They are an open invitation to explore the genuine fear and emotions which permeate our lives on a daily basis. Prager is a true alchemist and once you step foot in her world, nothing is how it seems.
There is another great recurring theme: the exploration of loneliness, the study of how individuals behave in the midst of mass. Many of his photographs include swarms of perfectly choreographed people, but it is clear that physical proximity does not mean cohesion, much less closeness. There are thousands of particular stories in a crowd, many isolated individuals in a huge group. “I do not like the crowds, because they seem threatening and overwhelming,” explains Prager. “But, at the same time, they include thousands of stories about vulnerable characters, which you can detect if you pay a little attention.”
These two short films are very interesting to me: