There are numerous reasons why photographer Alex Prager has gained such success and adoration, but one standout factor is her ability to make viewers see the world for its busy but dressed-up glory. She does so by setting a scene, something similar to daily life but eerily unfamiliar. The photographer creates sets to do this, but it’s a set you’d unknowingly walk past, a bus stop or a cinema crowd cast full of friends, family and the famous. It’s this mix of the real and the staged that’s seen curators at the world’s largest galleries fall for Alex, alongside the rest of us. You can’t help but stop and stare at an image by Alex Prager.
Besides the final photographs, the films and the exhibitions, what’s always intrigued me about Alex is her career trajectory. Photography wasn’t a natural pathway for her. It wasn’t a talent encouraged when someone saw some amateur snaps she’d taken, but a defiant decision as a creative outlet.
“I’d been working three jobs,” Alex tells It’s Nice That, the day before her mid-career retrospective is to open at London’s Photographers’ Gallery. “I was a receptionist and I was working in a clothing store; on the weekends I’d pass out flyers for clubs to earn money. I was noticing that no matter how hard I worked as a receptionist, I’d always get paid the same amount and that really frustrated me. Even if I didn’t work very hard for two weeks I’d still get the same paycheck as when I was trying to be innovative, creative. When I realised that, I always kind of knew that there was something bigger for me to do because I always had a lot of energy. I needed a place to funnel it and I knew it was going to be a creative field…somewhere.”
Alex then didn’t force a creative pursuit but just went looking for one. Always alone, “so I wouldn’t be influenced by anyone else’s ideas,” she started going to watch bands play, she went to museums, and in what turned out to be a defining decision, she went to The Getty to see a show by William Eggleston. “I was looking for my outlet and when I saw the Eggleston show I felt the physical and emotional reaction to his work,” she says. “I’d never really noticed photography being used as art before, I’d previously only known it as fashion and advertising. I wanted to know more. It felt like magic to me at the time.”
The photographer was instantly inspired and what followed reflects the way many began their creative pursuits in the early 2000s, using an all or nothing mentality aided by the internet. She visited a second-hand camera store and bought a professional camera. She turned to eBay and bought darkroom equipment, she gathered everything on photography she could find. “Within the same week… I just went for it.”
Street photography was where Alex began. In Silver Lake Drive, the accompanying book to the exhibit of the same name, she notes obsessing over Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Weegee, then taking portraits while studying the works of Martin Parr and Bruce Gilden. She staged guerrilla shows in a laundrette or hairdressers and watched to see how people acted, looking for a similar reaction to the one she had with Eggleston. “It was at those shows I was noticing how people were responding to the work and it was the images I had the most fun making, the colour and staged photographs. I naturally started going more in that direction,” she explains. “There was a lot of trial and error, reading a bunch of books, a tonne of books, studying filmmakers and other people’s trajectories. You know… mixing it all up.”
What followed was Polyester in 2007, a series of staged images harking back to previous eras through the cut of 60s style dresses or a flick of eyeliner. This continues in 2008’s The Big Valley and Week-End & The Long Weekend made from 2009 — 2012. The images regularly feature slightly timid women in unexplained distress, fully clothed in the sea for instance, or a crowd of ladies drinking cans of beer but one is staring off into the distance, contemplating with a cigarette. While making these works, influences grew and grew. “It’s really a mash-up,” she explains. “Everything that goes into my work is so personal. It’s Los Angeles [the artist’s home] as a strange, ugly, yet stunningly beautiful backdrop. It’s the experiences that I have that make me uncomfortable, or make me ask a question or try and solve problems. It’s imagery that I’ve seen in media, it’s nostalgia for a safer time, it’s so many different things."
As Alex grew in success, knowledge and on-set experience, the number of people in her photographs begins to increase. In 2012’s Compulsion tension and dramatisation grows too. The images depict houses on fire and women holding on to the back of a car in mid-air. In between these photographs, gaps are filled with close-ups of worried, concerned and angry looking eyes. But it’s Face in the Crowd made a year later, that many will recognise her name for.
Debuting at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2013, Face in the Crowd marked Alex’s first museum show in the USA as the sole artist, but also her practice expanding to include film. It’s these pieces that people often find themselves absorbed in, noticing characters that remind them of someone, or even themselves. The shoot also took the most planning, including 350 people, so that a “natural chaos” occurred. “That’s where the good stuff happens!” says Alex on encouraging some chance in photographs that are organised. “It’s those moments that I’m looking for in these completely staged, meticulously controlled environments that I’ve created. That’s what a street photographer is always looking for on the street. I’m kind of setting up the street, then looking for all those unplanned moments, as well as capturing the world that I intended to.” It’s a technique that has continued and developed, reaching a considerable peak in the latest work of the photographer’s La Grande Sortie, made with the Paris Opera Ballet.
A gem within Silver Lake Drive is a section of behind-the-scenes photographs where you get to see Alex at work. It’s within these backstage photographs you start to see the mammoth task Alex sets herself with each series and wonder how on earth it went to plan. “Oh my god I know,” laughs Alex on the point of how it’s ridiculous she’s even pulled half of her work off. “Even when I’m looking at them I’m like holy shit! I’m so focused on what I’m making at the time the logistics of how to make something is far from my mind,” the photographer explains. “If I thought about the logistics first I would just have to be crazy to try and attempt it, especially back in the day when I had no money, no technical idea of how to go about doing certain things, and no crew.”
Alex’s enthusiasm, built from hope, is a direct influence of Alex’s home: “That’s the thing about growing up in Los Angeles, you get to watch the movie industry make all these impossible worlds, it’s always been inspiring to me,” she points out. “Any time I felt like something wasn’t possible I think they could have done it if it was a movie. Then, I’m like right, we have no excuse we have to figure it out. We’ve had to figure it out so many times, on barely any budget, barely any anything! But we’ve always managed to figure it out.”
Things have understandably not always gone to plan in some of Alex’s works – she even notes encouraging a friend to jump on a trampoline in heels repeatedly until she broke her ankle four shots in. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of that,” she says. Yet it’s a risk that always pays off. This is also down to Alex’s close team, who she constantly praises, and thrives off working with. “I love it. That’s one thing I love about making films is a huge team collaborating to make one vision possible. It’s really exciting to me, it’s invigorating,” she gushes. “I love it so much, but I also love my downtime. I have a six-month-old right now so I appreciate being home more than ever now.”
Silver Lake Drive, the book and the show, finish with Alex’s final work to date, La Grande Sortie, marking ten years worth of work from Polyester in 2007. It’s a high honour for any artist to achieve a mid-career retrospective, one Alex affably describes as “very surreal” but completely deserved. We finish our interview by discussing the idea that during the course of The Photographers’ Gallery exhibit someone could wander round and be as inspired as she was when she visited the William Eggleston show in her early 20s. “Oh my god. That would be amazing,” she says.
Still always humble, Alex doesn’t see her work as life changing; she just wants it to shake people up a little, to change the way they think, if just for a minute. “I mean, hopefully people will connect in some personal way and maybe it will remind them of something that they were meant to do, or something they still want to do, or somebody they used to know or forgot about. Who knows,” she ponders. “There are so many different ways it could go but I just hope that they walk away with something that wasn’t there when they walked in.”
Silver Lake Drive, will be on display at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, from 15 June — 14 October 2018, the accompanying book, published by Thames & Hudson is available here.