Displacing Reality: An Interview with Alex Prager

By Jennifer Sauer - Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Displacing Reality: An Interview with Alex Prager

The lines between reality and fiction are effectually merged in Alex Prager’s precise, meticulously-crafted images. In her latest series of theatrical photography, Prager explores notions of artifice and congruence, challenging the audience’s implicit expectations with novel twists on familiar narratives.

The lines between reality and fiction are effectually merged in Alex Prager’s precise, meticulously-crafted images.  In her latest series of theatrical photography, Prager explores notions of artifice and congruence, challenging the audience’s implicit expectations with novel twists on familiar narratives.  Scale proves a key device in Prager’s technique, carefully emphasizing the details she wants her audience to see and attend to.  Content is cropped, distorted and layered in distinctive ways, skewing the storylines we expect into uncharted forms.  By placing her effects so visibly, purposefully close the surface, Prager requires the audience to reconsider not only what is seen, but the process of seeing and understanding altogether.   Lehmann Maupin Hong Kong will exhibit Prager’s signature images, film work and entre in sculpture from January 18 - March 17, 2018.

AD: As an accomplished, multi-disciplinary artist, both in photography and film, how does each aspect of your profession and identity inform the other in your art?

Alex Prager: When I showed my series The Big Valley, people kept asking me about what happened before and after the moment I was capturing.  This led to my transition into the narrative and was how I came to make Despair, my first short film. I have fallen head over heels in love with filmmaking. Photography feels more and more separate from my films, although I do like to work on photography and film simultaneously.  The end product feels very much its own thing now, and the way I approach the two mediums are coming from different impulses, whereas initially my films felt like an extension of my photographs.  I am constantly playing with the idea of subtly distorting reality to toy with and alter the viewers’ perception, to make them second guess what they’re looking at.  The work that I am showing in Hong Kong really explores this.

AD: You were quoted as saying: “I feel very connected to street photographers in the way that we work, even though our processes are different...While they find their perspective in those characters already on the streets, I create mine.”  What is your process like, from dreaming up imagery to realizing the many, precise details that define your photographs?

Alex Prager: I have a very clear vision when I walk onto my sets, the exact look and feel that I am trying to evoke. I am very specific about wardrobe, hair and make-up – down to every eyelash!  The casting, set design and props are also carefully planned.  I will use a mix of family, friends and real actors, ensuring each person has a unique look and personality.  When you get an eclectic group of people on set, there’s no telling how things will go and there will always be an element of surprise.  A street photographer goes into the world looking for moments, I set the stage for moments to happen, but once we are both there, I think a similar thing occurs.  We are all just looking for the magic to happen and then draw our cameras quickly enough to capture it, so we can share what we saw with people. It is really exciting because no matter how controlled everything begins, I can never be sure of what will happen when I arrive on set, and those unplanned moments are what I am looking for.  Of course, I am a big fan of preproduction, and ultimately, I make the pictures I planned but the little moments I am talking about, that end up in the final products are what makes make them special.

ALEX PRAGER Applause, 2016 single-channel video, color duration: 10 seconds 12.5 x 19.5 x 3.63 inches (framed) 31.8 x 49.5 x 9.2 cm Courtesy Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

ALEX PRAGER Cats, 2017 archival pigment print 48 x 37.5 inches (print) 121.9 x 95.3 cm 49 x 38.5 x 2.25 inches (framed) 124.5 x 97.8 x 5.7 cm Courtesy Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

ALEX PRAGER Hand Model, 2017 archival pigment print 80 x 56 inches (print) 203.2 x 142.2 cm 81 x 57 x 2.25 inches (framed) 205.7 x 144.8 x 5.7 cm Courtesy Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

AD: You have spoken about the importance of audience connection to your photographs: “it's just a moment people can respond to however they want...a universal, human quality about it that engages with anyone's personal experiential tract—the people they've known in their life, the art and culture they love, the emotions they've felt.”  As an artist, how do you reach for that visceral place in your viewers?  How do you determine which details to select and where the narrative of images should leave off for the viewer to "complete" and connect with the story?

Alex Prager: I am not thinking about how to please other people when I am making work. I am looking for what I respond to and what gets me excited.  When I feel the jitters before I arrive on set, I know I am on the right path.  It is not really coming from an analytical place when I start. It is much later, sometimes after I have made the thing and I am looking at it wondering what instigated this idea, that I begin to follow the line through and I see exactly how it fits in to what I have made before. If I feel passionately enough about it beforehand, I don’t have to look long before I see the connection.  This is the way I have always worked.  It is about trusting myself and knowing the ideas I feel most scared of are generally going to lead me somewhere good, or at the very least, somewhere really interesting.

AD: In addition to film-making and the backdrop of movie culture in Los Angeles, what other life experiences or influences have most contributed to your development as an artist?

Alex Prager: My photography and films all stem from a very personal place, so whatever I am going through or have observed will inevitably make their way into my work.  Probably not in a literal way, but I can always find the strings that led me there.

ALEX PRAGER Hawkins Street, 2017 archival pigment print 12.97 x 24 inches (print) 32.9 x 61 cm 13.97 x 25 x 2.25 inches (framed) 35.5 x 63.5 x 5.7 cm Courtesy Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

ALEX PRAGER See’s Candies, Payless, Supercuts 1 , 2015 archival pigment print 48 x 127.45 inches (print) 121.9 x 323.7 cm 49.88 x 129.5 x 2.5 inches (framed) 126.7 x 328.9 x 6.4 cm Courtesy Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

ALEX PRAGER Shopping Plaza 1, 2015 archival pigment print 59 x 90 inches (print) 149.9 x 228.6 cm 59.94 x 90.94 x 2 inches (framed) 152.2 x 231 x 5.1 cm Courtesy Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

AD: The themes in your art often question the divides of contrast and duality, i.e. the light and dark sides of beauty, the public and private spheres, staged and raw perspectives.  Which concepts and emotions do you most like to depict in your work?

Alex Prager: I am most interested in exploring the duality between reality and artifice. It is here you can find the strange and unusual in all of us, because what is just underneath the surface of trying hard to look “normal” and pretty, is where it gets interesting and the complexities of humans really stand out to me.

AD: You have said that nothing is more inspiring to you than dreaming up an idea that feels too big and finding a collaborative way to realize it.  What challenges are next on the horizon for you?

Alex Prager: My first monograph book will be published in Spring 2018.  It has been an incredible undertaking.  Of course, working on catalogs and things like that has prepared me in publishing, but this will be a comprehensive representation of my career to date, so there is some pressure to get it right! Also, there are some retrospective shows that will travel throughout 2018 that I can’t wait to announce and some other things in the works…

Image on top: Alex Prager by Mark Williams and Sara Hirakawa © 2017

Jennifer Sauer is a writer who holds an M.A. in Literary Arts from New York University. Her background includes writing and communications for diverse fields including the arts, charitable foundations and the financial sector. She lives in New York City with her husband and son.

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Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

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