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Alex Prager on her first decade of photography

Posted on 18 Jun 2018

We meet Alex Prager, artist and author behind 'Silver Lake Drive', and one of the truly original image makers of our time.

© Alex Prager, The Big Valley (2008), 'Annie, 2008', pg. 38-39, 48 x 63.5 inches, 121.9 x 161.3 cm

How would you describe your practice to those unfamiliar with your work?

Someone actually described it recently as ‘the emotion of an entire film compressed into a single frame’, which I think captures it.

Which project would you say you are most proud of?

Well I’m proud of the whole book, obviously; it’s like every single emotion and problem and circumstance that I’ve ever encountered is in that book. [AP laughs]
But I’m always most proud of my last project in particular. In this case that’s La Grande Sortie, which was shot in 2016 with the Paris Opera Ballet.

It was supposed to be an American view of the Paris Opera Ballet, which for me really evoked a theme that I’ve been exploring consistently through my work: the line where artifice and reality meet, where the perception of ‘reality’ isn’t necessarily reality but a distortion of the mind. It seemed perfect.

Ballet strives for perfection, it’s meant to look perfect and, generally, it does trick people in the audience into thinking what they’re watching is perfect. But once you get close enough you hear the scraping of the shoes on the wooden floor, you see the makeup cracking and the lights so hot that the sweat shows through in weird ways… All the psychological aspects of the ballet, and the physical pain they go through, all hidden but just about visible, with all these layers on top that make it very complex. It’s the epitome of what I’ve always been exploring, but in Paris instead of LA.

© Alex Prager, La Grande Sortie (2016), 'Act III, Scene 2, 2016', pg. 191, 59 x 59 inches, 149.9 x 149.9 cm

This first monograph covers your first ten years of work, how has your practice changed in that time?

It hasn’t really changed. The way I approach my work is exactly the same, only on a larger scale.

When I began it was just me and my camera, and maybe one person I was photographing; it was very much: ‘I have an idea and what can I do, what do I need to do to make that become a picture that I can share with other people…’ I still work very much in the same way. I’ll have an idea for an image or a film and I don’t think about logistics until I’m certain that that’s what we’re doing, and then there’s nothing that’s going to get in the way of us, the team, making that.

Has your creative process remained the same?

Yes, that process within me is exactly the same. Everything is much bigger now, but only because the ideas are bigger; the scale of the team and the scale of the production changes based on the concept that I want to shoot.

I’ll come up with an idea that’s exciting to me and feels a little bit terrifying, and once I know 100% that that is what I want to shoot next, I gather my team together and we figure out how. If it’s hitting all of these emotional chords in me I know that I have to shoot it, otherwise it keeps floating to the surface of my mind over and over, no matter what else I’m working on – it kind of gnaws at my creative self.

© Alex Prager, Week-end & The Long Weekend (2009-2012), 'Rachel and Friends, 2009', pg. 64-65, 48 x 62 inches, 121.9 x 157.5 cm

You’ve worked a lot in Los Angeles, and with some well-known Hollywood actors. Are there any underlying themes or messages that connect the pieces you’ve made in LA?

Growing up in Los Angeles I was constantly surrounded by the film industry. Long before I knew that I wanted to make films myself I was observing films being made, and noticing that anything was possible in the film industry. Then, when I started making my own pictures, that was always there, the idea that ‘anything was possible in the film industry’. I could never allow myself any excuses as to why I couldn’t make a picture the way I’d imagined. It was an important lesson, I think.
Los Angeles is also just a great place to study that line between reality and fiction that I mentioned. It’s full of strange characters that exist in real life, with the rawness of real people – with real goals, purposes, intentions and struggles – who make up the underbelly of the city, on top of which are the layers of glamour and pretence that you see and imagine. And, of course, the mountainous background that seems like a set. It’s strange. Buildings go up and stay up for just as long as the movie is being made; then suddenly the cafe you thought was real has disappeared because the movie’s over and it was only a set. There are just so many layers of artifice in Los Angeles. It’s a very unreliable city in that way, but it’s also very beautiful. I love how it’s never quite what it seems. All of that, I think, is really there, somewhere, in my work.

You see all of this in Hollywood too. There are so many levels of gloss and colour, from the lighting and the glamorous actors and the layers of makeup way down to the made-up ‘mid-Atlantic’ accent (historically used in films to make them more ‘poppy’, ‘snappy’ and inviting) – Hollywood is masterful at luring people into a world that they might not otherwise want to be a part of, but because it’s so beautiful they’re drawn in. All these layers, these ‘tricks’, are used to get people to watch films, and when a filmmaker has the audience’s attention they can say whatever they want. I find that side really inspiring; maybe because I’m always interested in my audience and about communicating my ideas to the widest audience possible – which is why I wanted to publish my book with Thames & Hudson. The use of film ‘trickery’ to communicate ideas, and to make certain darker subjects accessible to a wider audience has always fascinated me.

© Alex Prager, Week-end & The Long Weekend (2009-2012), 'Irene, 2010', pg. 68-69, 48 x 70 inches, 121.9 x 177.8 cm

Your style is really distinct, spanning both photography and filmmaking. What direction do you see your work going from here?

I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m evolving naturally, I think, just chasing points of interest and working with them, examining them.
So it depends where my interests take me. Right now, for example, I find sculpture and sculpting so interesting. I’ve always created my own sets, my own worlds – if I needed a boulder for a scene or idea and I couldn’t get it from a rock rental company [AP laughs], then I just make it out of papier-mâché. I’ve always been doing that in my sets, but now I feel I’m doing it on a different level. That is what I love about the film industry: you have sculpture, you have music, you have foley sounds, photography, painting – literally everything; so it’s a great place to be an artist.

© Alex Prager, Compulsion (2012), '1.18 pm, Silverlake Drive, 2012', pg. 108, 48 x 52.61 inches, 121.9 x 133.6 cm

All images © Alex Prager. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Interview by Rachel Whitehouse.