On January 21, mid-winter London gets a touch of Hollywood Technicolor as LA photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager opens an exhibition of new work at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Cromwell Place. The hyper-real images in Part One: The Mountain sing with the 42-year-old’s signature polish, but the series marks a departure from the stylized crowd scenes that previously characterized her work. Instead, each photo is a dreamlike portrait of an individual, frozen in motion in their own world. In “Dusk” (2021), for example, a woman in a sundress hangs upside down as the contents of her pouch – dollar bills, coins, lipstick – fall out around her.
It’s a powerful way to encapsulate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. “The idea of a mountain is that of a primary place where we go when we are isolated and alone,” says Prager. “It’s representative of the runaway reckoning of life and love over the past two years, which has been transformative for everyone I know. It was deaf to do another crowd scene. The uncertainties of the “The state of the world is confusing, nothing is settled yet, we are still going through it,” she says, regretting that travel restrictions make it unlikely she could be in London for the opening of his show.
When we speak on Zoom in early January, she’s visiting family in Florida, and her backdrop is as incredibly real as her portraits. She sits outside, framed by a rich blue sky and a gnarled tree; Prager takes center stage, with an upscale, balanced charm that exudes the appeal of a Hitchcock blonde – she cites the director as one of her inspirations.
Whether its protagonists fall, fly or float is up to us, she says, but there is a sense of progression and optimism in its heightened colors and theatrical poses. Each person has a story and more to tell, through a process that Prager defines as “a kind of death and rebirth.”
Such an arc is, says Prager, born out of a need to fill a void that she says has been abandoned by world leaders. “We have to kick out the present because the fucking present sucks. Young people have nothing to hold on to in our future, no real story is told of what might happen next. We have to at least give them something to believe in,” she says, adding that she has a four-year-old child. “All facts begin in the imagination. You put ideas into the world and they become reality when people agree.
That’s not how everyone understands the facts and it’s dicey territory in an age of fake news and conspiracy theories, but Prager says that’s precisely what needs to be countered with a sense of on a trip and caring about the experiences of others. “It is irresponsible not to inspire. Others will just fill the void with stories that become more interesting to people just because they are stories,” she says.
The interplay of reality, fantasy and myth-making has always dominated the work of the artist, who grew up in Hollywood. Her inspirations were street photographers – notably William Eggleston, whose sharp observations of America propelled her to be an artist – and also filmmakers. Besides Hitchcock, she cites Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, whose visual nuances, elegiac motifs, and ability to identify human emotions clearly run through Prager’s work.
His practice branched out into filmmaking, with his first – ‘Despair’ (2010) – included in the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York New Photography 2010. A short film of the subjects of the work accompanies this month’s show to provide more context to its subjects. “There’s something addictive about filmmaking because there are so many different components to communicate. With photography, you only have the visual. But in some ways it makes it more poetic, saying something with less and be laser-accurate,” she says.
An audience’s reaction to his work is important to Prager, who wants people to identify and refract their own stories through his images. She relishes a memory from the start of her career, when she hung up her photographs to dry in the laundry room of her MacArthur Park building. “When I went back, I knew which ones people liked because they weren’t there anymore. I was putting on a show without knowing it,” she says. The professional team around her prevents such gifts – edited works from her London exhibition cost between $20,000 and $60,000 each – while she has collectors such as Elton John and financier David Teitelbaum and his Sayoko wife. It is in public institutions around the world.
She is of course aware of the phenomenon of digital art supported by non-fungible tokens, but for now it seems foreign to her practice. “I spend so much time and focus on making my physical impressions that it’s hard for me to understand NFTs. Right now, they’re a bit like 3D glasses in terms of craze,” says- she.
Prager’s work – clear and direct but also full of artifice – rings with the age we are in. She notes how we play with social media, but such trickery is not a new phenomenon. “They teach you in screenwriting classes that no one ever says exactly what they mean,” she says. “Aren’t we all imagining our identity every time we leave home? And we are not the same person every day. The artifice is only a layer woven into reality.
“Part One: The Mountain”, from January 21 to March 5, lehmannmaupin.com