As photographer Alex Prager shows off her latest cinematic portraits in her new exhibition 'Compulsion', we revisit our in-depth interview with the contemporary artist from the FW11 issue of Ponystep.
Although the photographer Alex Prager loves Europe, so much so that she spent three months living in London earlier this year, her work is inexorably tied to the West Coast of the United States. “The further east I go the closer to perfect everything gets. Cities like Paris or Venice are so beautiful that I don’t really think there’s very much for me to contribute to as an artist,” she says. “What I am trying to do in my photos has a lot to do with ugliness and the idea of beauty mixed in with that. I need to create the juxtaposition, so LA is the perfect city for me – it is so beautiful and yet so ugly at the same time.”
Born in 1979 and raised by her grandmother in Los Angeles, Alex was inspired to take up photography by an exhibition of the work of William Eggleston at the Getty Museum in early 2000s. She is entirely self-taught and characterises her approach as “intuitive” and “emotional”. “There are a lot of artists that I love, but because I never had discussions about them in class or with peers, sometimes I don’t know how to say their names correctly… I’m embarrassed to talk about them because I might get the pronunciation wrong,” she admits. Rather than at art school, she honed her photographic language in the environs of her native city and her work is infused with a sense of Hollywood and aspirations toward the movies. “My first series started out being about a group of women from a small town getting together and starting an acting troupe,” she says, “Some of the birds were taxidermy hanging on strings. I wanted a plastic feel, without being too obvious. That’s how the wigs first came into it.”
Among the most distinctive features of Alex’s work are her costumes and her cast. As a teenager in the 1990s she either bought her clothes from thrift shops or acquired them from her grandmother’s friends and it was this material she turned to when she began taking photographs. A decade on, she has begun to augment her own clothes with outfits hired from the Warner Brothers costume houses, but there is a continuity of spirit. Similarly her sister and her tight-knit circle of friends have been the subjects of her pictures from the start. “I really like using my sister or my friends because I am so comfortable with them, I’m able to have bad ideas and go through the process without worrying if people think I’m unprofessional, or don’t know what I’m doing, because sometimes it takes a bit of messing up to get it right,” she says. Beyond these practical considerations, there is also an element of self-portraiture through omission in her casting. “It’s something quite specific I am looking for – I have a really angular face, everything is really pointy, but my sister has big soft lips and rounder eyes, a doll-like face,” she says. She insists that she would never appear in her work, yet she dwells on her sister’s appearance as the antithesis of her own. It’s as if her pictures are a dream- like, cinematically distorted autobiography.
True to the inspiration of Eggleston, alongside cast and costume, colour also plays a crucial role in Alex’s work. Over the last few years she has developed a distinctive palette of shocking shades and clashing pastels. Pressed on how she arrived at this spectrum, she explains, “If I am at museums looking at old paintings, I always respond to the work with really beautiful colours. Essentially that is what I am trying to do in my work. I am not shooting everything like a street photographer, I am piecing things together.” In Alex’s painterly hands, colour becomes a structural element and she includes specific references to certain shades in the earliest sketches for a photograph.
In the last couple of years, the style of Alex’s photographs has often been linked to that of the TV series Mad Men. There is an obvious connection in the common use of outfits from the 50s and 60s, but, while the TV programme is slavishly accurate, Alex has no aspiration toward period authenticity. In fact her intentions are quite the opposite. “I’ve always mixed up eras, so that you end up in a time that doesn’t really exist,” she explains, “Or, if you think about it, it’s contemporary to a degree, because the world that we live in is full of signs of past eras – you don’t look around and see only brand new stuff from 2011!” Before the buzz around Mad Men, a lot of the talk about Alex’s work revolved around allusions to the director Alfred Hitchcock. “It was the only reference, and people stated it all the time,” Alex remembers. In response she made her most Hitchcockian picture of all: a blond woman in an eau-de-nil skirt suit being harassed by a flock of pigeons. “It was like, ‘OK, you think I am Hitchcock, well here’s Hitchcock!’”, she says. “I was also trying to say goodbye to that – although obviously not completely, because who doesn’t love Hitchcock?”
Alex is currently immersed in the process of making a new series of photographs. Usually she allows herself to be completely absorbed in shooting for periods of three or four months at a time and her current project is a show provisionally scheduled at her New York gallery Yancey Richardson for Spring next year. Breaking down her method, she says, “Sometimes, to figure out an idea, first I’ll do a sketch. Then, if I’m still interested in the idea after I’ve seen a sketch, I’ll make a collage. I shoot locations on my iPhone and grab pictures from Google images. If the collage still looks interesting, then I will go and shoot it.” Once on set, everything is open to change. “Usually I take what I shot and piece together a new picture,” she says. “In the sketch perhaps the girl was in the car, but on the shoot I realise that looks really bad, so I’ll have her stand on top of the car. Most often what I was imagining doesn’t work out, but I will get something entirely different from it.” Immediately after a shoot she experiences “three days of hell, ratifying if I did or didn’t get the picture.”
I try and make pictures that I would want to hang on my wall, that I would find funny or interesting
Alongside making pictures destined for gallery walls, Alex also shoots fashion stories for magazines and works on the occasional advertising campaign. In some cases these projects are continuous with her other work – shooting for W magazine she has been able to use their budget to make pictures that she’d already envisaged – but in others it becomes what she describes as “a collaboration in the biggest sense of the word.” Discussing a story that appears in the September issue of American Vogue, she says “Normally I don’t use professional models if I can help it. Most models really look like models, there is no getting around it – you can’t make them look like people a normal looking girl can relate to. In Vogue we used a very beautiful girl call Anja Rubik. She’s great, but she is intensely model-looking, so the whole spread looks like a fashion shoot.”
Keen to show her work in non-gallery settings, places where it will be seen and appreciated by a wider audience, all the same Alex is refining her sense of which projects will prove creatively rewarding. “I don’t want to take pictures to sell merchandise to people, that’s never been a goal of mine,” she says. Although she is much beloved by the fashion world, her time scale is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the increasingly frantic pace of the collections. “I try and make pictures that I would want to hang on my wall, that I would find funny or interesting,” she says, “Pictures I would want to look at every day for the rest of my life.”
'Compulsion' runs at Michael Hoppen Gallery, 3 Jubilee Place, London SW3 3TD from 20/04/12 to 26/05/12