Alex Prager on Art Exhibit, Foray Into Films
BY EMILI VESILIND
Marked by beautiful women inhabiting states of extreme peril or distress, Alex Prager's photographs are plenty provocative. And part of their drama is purely cinematic. The artist's subjects are almost always decked out in colorful retro clothing, with overdone makeup and stiff, obvious wigs, summoning the glossy and surreal theatricality of classic films, specifically those of Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock. The Los Angeles native heightens the drama with narratives that often show women terrorized or trapped by disastrous things like sinking cars or a chance encounter with a snarling wolf on a dark, lonely road. The costuming, bold lighting, and pulp-fiction story lines of the photos leave you with the feeling you're looking at vintage film stills.
That Prager, who lives and works in LA, added filmmaker to her repertoire in 2010 seemed only fitting. "I decided to show people what came before and after the moment I took the picture," she says. Her debut film, Despair, shows a distraught Bryce Dallas Howard—dressed in a 1950s day dress, her expressive features amplified by brick-red matte lipstick and black liquid eyeliner—jumping out the window of a building. But every moment of the brief drama is so beautifully rendered, the film comes off as more magic than tragic.
In April Prager debuts a new film, La Petite Mort ("the little death" in French—a reference to the orgasm), at her latest solo exhibition, Compulsion, at M+B gallery in Los Angeles. "Those other films were little shorts," says the 32-year-old when discussing the new piece, "but I'm approaching this film much more like a movie, with storytelling." The roughly five-minute film, starring French actress Judith Godrèche, is "an exploration of sex and death," says Prager, who also debuts 20 new photographs at the exhibition, which runs from April 7 to May 12.
New images include shadowy close-ups of women's eyes made up with liquid eyeliner and mascara, which feel very Hitchcockian, along with some intricately choreographed scenarios featuring distressed women and a striking shot of a vintage Chrysler sedan—unmanned, with a single door ajar—facing off with a huge boulder (suggesting something disastrous just happened) on an empty street in Silver Lake.
Prager's profile as a fine-art photographer has been on a slow and steady rise since she started taking images in the early 2000s, inspired by an exhibition of seminal photographer William Eggleston's work at The J. Paul Getty Museum. "It floored me," she says. "Before that I didn't really know what I was doing with myself. The second I saw his photography on the walls, I knew exactly what I [should be] doing."
But she vaulted into the big leagues when her work was showcased in MoMA's New Photography 2010 exhibition, which she calls "a huge turning point in my career." Her photographs are now in the permanent collections of several major museums, including MoMA and the Whitney. A favorite among the international fashion flock, her work has also appeared in the pages of Vogue and W—and late last year, Prager created a short film for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week starring model-of-the-moment Lara Stone. She also recently directed 13 films for The New York Times entitled Touch of Evil, which featured many of this year's Oscar nominees, including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Glenn Close as various cinematic villains.
"Style from over the ages inspires me," says the artist, who often works with a stylist on her projects and has been known to take inspiration for an image from a single dress. Fashion lensmen Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton—along with Diane Arbus and Mexican photojournalist Enrique Metinides (who specialized in crime and disaster photography)—are among the artists Prager names as major influences as well.
The self-taught photographer says the recent influx of attention on her work hasn't changed her process (she has an in-house producer to assist with photography shoots and collaborates with Vespa Pictures on her films), but acknowledges that fame comes with the pressure to be public. "That whole thing comes totally unnaturally to me," she says. "Choosing to be a photographer, I thought I'd always be behind the lens. But the way the world is now, everyone wants to know about everyone." Alex Prager's Compulsion exhibit is on display April 7–May 12 at M+B. 612 N. Almont Dr., LA, 310-550-0050; mbart.com
photography by alex prager
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.