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Alex Prager, “Dawn” (2021)
Alex Prager, “Dawn” (2021), archival pigment print, 48 x 36.9 inches, 121.92 x 93.73 cmCourtesy Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London

Alex Prager’s cinematic photos of a post-pandemic world

We speak to the photographer and filmmaker about Part One: The Mountain, the new exhibition inspired by the bizarre, traumatic, and isolating experience of the last two years

Photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager is best known for creating theatrically-staged images capturing moments of high drama unfolding luxuriously in glorious technicolour. Her large-scale photographs often feature ensemble casts of meticulously constructed characters, every detail of which Prager herself has considered – right down to the very last eyelash. All located in an ambiguously anachronistic neo-noir world of Hitcockian glamour, she presents us time and time again with an irresistible series of alluring plots and unsolvable mysteries. 

Her works teeter elegantly between reality and artifice, familiarity and otherworldliness, drawing on a rich, shadowy density of Hollywood references to synthesise cinematic tropes, stock characters, and grand narratives while underscoring these elements with surreal, often humorous ambiguities which imbue her images with an uncanny, dreamlike atmosphere. 

Her latest exhibition, Part One: The Mountain at London’s Lehmann Maupin, sees Prager turn away from elaborate crowd scenes to instead portray a series of lone figures. Wrestling with inner turmoil on the mountaintop, or suspended in the eternal sky – are the ascending or falling? She prefers to leave that up to us to decide – each character represents a quintessential archetype, as transfigured through the fantastical lens of Alex Prager. 

Presented in the glowing colour palette of a Sergio Leone western, each portrait is embedded with myriad tiny details richly suggestive of the characters’ individual backstories. A map, casino chips, newspapers, prescription medicine, and various artefacts of modern American life impregnate the images with meaning and narrative. 

This series is Prager’s response to the last two years and the effects of the pandemic. She tells Dazed that drawing on the tradition of classical portraiture felt like a way to encourage people to really look at one another again after having been so isolated and polarised; to recreate some of the bodily magic that takes place when people come together in the same physical space. 

The mountain is fundamental to this series, not just as a location but as an idea. Here, Prager invokes the deep, universally-understood significance of mountains in folklore as almost mystical landscapes, long-associated with stories of pilgrimage, achievement, self-discovery, and adversity. She shoots mostly in her hometown of Los Angeles – itself a kind of mythic terrain we’ve made pilgrimages to many, many times in our movie-watching lives; a landscape reproduced so frequently on screen that its relationship with reality is as precarious as its very situation on the San Andreas Faultline. Alex Prager’s LA is a city of eerie perfection, poised in frozen moments of plot-twisting transfiguration. 

Below, we talk to Alex Prager about her new work and creating optimistic visions of a hopeful future, how the pandemic has altered our perception of time, and the allure of artifice.

This series is a break away from the big set pieces with huge ensemble casts that you’re more known for. Could we talk a little bit about your decision to focus on solo portraits of individuals?

Alex Prager: I went back to classical portraiture, which I hadn’t done since the beginning of my career. It seemed very appropriate because we’d all been so isolated from each other. And I really, really wanted people to look at each other... just the very simple act of seeing one another again, because it’s been such a polarised time. Not just the politics of it all, but also being told we can’t physically be around each other. 

Verbal communication is one thing, but physical communication – how we communicate to each other, just silently through our physical beings and states of being, and even how we smell one another – that’s massive to lose. Not to be a hippie about it, but the vibrations of just being around each other, and that energy... to sever that is just so awful, it’s never happened before. And so I really wanted to create something that would allow people to look at each other and build that understanding again, ever so slightly, by the very act of seeing. And so it started there.  

Also, obviously, I felt like it was kind of not reading the room if I were to jump into another crowd scene, even though I could’ve shot another crowd series, because, luckily, the Screen Actors Guild made it possible for people to start shooting again pretty early on the pandemic. But I just had no interest in shooting crowds, it seemed so right to do individual portraits. 

I wanted to really look at what emotional state that person was going through during this time, because that’s what I had been feeling. And I wanted to put all of those questions into each portrait.

In what ways do you feel that these works speak of the loss, trauma, and isolation that we’ve all been subjected to?

Alex Prager: It’s like the logistics of how we got there aren’t important, it’s where we are now and everything that we’ve felt over the past two years. Because we’ve all felt the same things, no matter what got us there. 

I really wanted to make these images feel like a spiritual death and then rebirth, to get that hope and beauty back into the world. Because I haven’t heard anything from our leaders, talking or telling stories about a future that’s worth going forward towards. It’s up to artists to put a world there that’s going to be worth living in once we get through this. And so I wanted to inject these pictures with hopeful feeling through unity and colour. 

“I haven’t heard anything from our leaders, talking or telling stories about a future that’s worth going forward towards. It’s up to artists to put a world there that’s going to be worth living in once we get through this” – Alex Prager

I always feel that your work is like a world I would like to step into and inhabit...

Alex Prager: Yeah, and no matter how dark that world is. Because, obviously I'm talking about difficult things, but as long as there’s beauty and some positivity surrounding it, I think it’s digestible.

And your photographs are attractive because they gesture towards big narratives as well. Narrative and story is a way of learning, isn’t it? It’s how we make sense of difficult situations.

Alex Prager: Exactly. That’s the way we do it. 

You mentioned your use of colour and your desire to inject some colour back into life, and I was really struck by the different varieties of blue sky in these pictures. Were your very particular about the shades of blues you chose? 

Alex Prager: On any given day in Los Angeles, you’ll get a different blue sky. The different times of day were really important to this because time has been a theme throughout the past two years. Time has become something so abstract for people because suddenly not having our routines, I think, really stirred up time in a way that it no longer made sense in the way it used to. Time became more of an idea than an actuality we relied on throughout the day. So I really wanted to inject this concept of time into the titles and the times of day are seen in the sky too. Sometimes you can’t specifically see that – like, that exact time that I’m titling the work – but that’s also how the sky is in Los Angeles. It‘s kind of playful in that way because humour is important.

Yes, there’s always levity in there, even when you’re dealing with a dark theme. And your characters seem to hint at all sorts of funny human idiosyncrasies.

Alex Prager: I just love people. And I find it so sad how critical people have gotten towards one another. It’s almost like we’ve been so terrorised that we’ve gone to the most primal survival instincts, which is to choose a side; to choose a camp. And these camps are fighting each other to survive, because we’ve all kind of narrowed our circles down to our own survival and our family’s survival. What else is there to do when you’re so scared, and you don’t know which direction to go in? You choose a side. 

And so we’ve kind of become very black and white, which isn’t how people really are. We’re all sorts of colours and we’re very complex. We may feel one way one day, and then the very next day will feel the complete opposite way, and that’s totally fine. But that’s not how the last two years have been – or even the last six years in America, where it’s very polarised.

I love that quality in people, that you can change your mind about a way to be. I love that, depending on a costume you put on in the morning, you can feel differently and therefore act differently or present yourself differently. That’s why I’m always playing with the line between reality and artifice, because that’s actually how real people live on a day to day basis. You never feel exactly one way at all times of day. We change, we evolve, we learn new things, and we open ourselves up to growing and changing and that’s good.

There's a lot of talk about being our ‘authentic’ selves, but I find there's something quite reductive about that idea because does that even exist? Aren’t we more fluid than that?

Alex Prager: Yes, we’re constantly changing and that’s what makes people so interesting. And we’re all different. Even if you don't agree with that person’s differences, if you look at someone and listen to them, and you see them and observe them, you can always find something to love a little bit about them, even if you actually really despise certain opinions they hold. 

And so I really wanted to focus on people and all their complexities and what makes them authentic or real, but also the artifice that we all bring to everyday life is important... reinventing ourselves, depending on the situation we're in. Or manipulating a situation to get something different out of it. All of that is what we do all the time. 

You might pick up a phrase that you heard someone else say on the subway, and then next thing you know, you're using that phrase, because it sounded good. I love that about people. I found myself doing that one time but, like, it went really south. The second it came out of my mouth. I was like, ‘Why did I think that that could work with me saying it?’ I can't even remember what it was, but it was a phrase that I would never actually say. I took it too far, but I tried! Points for trying. It's fun to do that but, unfortunately, I did it when I was public speaking.

You’ve spoken already about the symbolism of the mountain as a cultural signifier and mystical terrain, but what struck me today, was all the smaller objects featured in the portraits. Please could you elaborate on the symbolism of those personal effects contained within the images?

Alex Prager: Did you spot the Prozac? I mean, it was just ways to infuse the pictures with what represents us right now in our culture. I don't want to talk too much about why I chose specific objects, I feel like they made sense for representing different people in society right now. And I really wanted to kind of flatten everyone out. By flattening, I mean getting us to look at each other on the same plane, no matter how different we are, and being able to see those differences and see our culture represented in our types. I wanted to use that tool of the familiarity of how that feels and looks to talk about the bigger, darker things that we've all been experiencing together, because we've all felt some very similar emotional states.

I feel so lucky to be able to use the things that I love about people, the things I find funny about people, and things that I find weird that are happening right now in our culture, like the prescription drugs... I heard this thing during the pandemic that 48 per cent of women in the US right now are taking antidepressants. And I was just like, ‘48 per cent! That is fucked up.’ That's crazy. So of course that had to end up in the work. And so it’s all coming from a place of, like, ‘What the fuck.’ But also it can be as simple as I find something hilarious. Or like, I love the way that thing looks and I'm just obsessed with it and I have to put in the work. 

“The artifice that we all bring to everyday life is important” – Alex Prager

These portraits are not quite as large as your previous work. Was it a deliberate decision to change the scale? 

Alex Prager: Yes, I wanted them to be smaller. I was kind of following the classical portraiture size, which is smaller. And they’re vertical rather than horizontal, which is more in the lineage of portraiture, since these are portraits, even though not in the traditional sense. I wanted to keep that structure of the classic portrait.

I think the classic portrait size is really symbolic. It’s the way that people have made portraits for centuries and so it’s obviously a very workable sides for eliciting a response, so I wanted to keep to that size.

Some are a little bigger. Like I made the ‘High Noon’ picture a little bigger but it felt like there was so much strength happening in that one that it felt like it needed to be a little bit bigger. But the other one that I kept to very classical size.

One of the images that really stands out, partly because it's different to the others, is ‘Seconds’. Rather than being in a big outdoor setting, it’s in this confined interior space. of a car What’s the significance of this photograph and why did you include it in this body of work? 

Alex Prager: All the others are meant to represent emotional or psychological states of being. And that one was the only one that I wanted to put in there as the link to the physical universe; a physical place, traversing this unknown space that feels endless, almost like purgatory, or a waiting room and you don’t know where the door is. That’s what that tunnel is supposed to represent. That’s why I call it ‘Seconds’. It’s that theme of time again, in this endless tunnel. 

I really wanted to have an image that represented passing through something without ever knowing what you’re passing from or what you’re passing to. 

I was really struck by the detail that the speedometer says zero – she’s waiting. What’s she waiting for?

Alex Prager: That’s what it’s felt like over the past few years. Like, ‘Where are we going? Are we going anywhere?’ Everything stood still in a way and, yet, my kid has grown by two years and he’s only four – that’s half his life. So it’s like, what has even happened? 

A lot of people have been asking those questions like, ‘What have I even done in the past year?’ Who fucking knows. We all got two years older, and nothing happened, you know? But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t feel the same as a normal year. Like, what the fuck did I do this last year? Or those last two years? You know, I found myself asking that question so much out loud.

Alex Prager’s Part One:The Mountain is at London’s Lehmann Maupin gallery until March 5 2022