Alex Prager

by William J. Simmons

Alex Prager’s willingness to provide something for everyone makes her one of the most generous contemporary artists. She combines technical skill and compositional precision with the beautiful thematics of film noir or melodrama. Perhaps above all Prager uses photography and film to excavate the inner lives of individuals – some of whom we recognize, but most are anonymous faces in the crowd. Nowhere is this more potent than in Prager’s commission for Times Square’s Midnight Moment, in which her short film Applause plays every night at 11:57 PM during the month of June. A sea of people clap across the enormous electronic billboards, and one is filled with exhilaration and fear. Every time we get up in the morning and step outside, after all, we are performing for somebody – why not get the recognition we deserve? Or is there freedom in anonymity?

FLAUNT: Let’s begin with your roots in photography and film, especially your interest in people and performance.

Alex Prager: Street photography is what got me started. My work is hyper-realistically staged, and every detail is extremely controlled. I truly began using the essence of street photography – capturing what makes people and characters unique. I have always been fascinated with that – the odd and the awkward moments. Back when I first started, it was just me and my camera walking the streets looking for anything honest and real.

I feel very connected to street photographers in the way that we work, even though our processes are different. They don't have all the weeks or months of planning shots, setting up huge 18K lights, bringing in ample amounts of costumes and the extensive hair and makeup that goes hand-in-hand with my shoots. While they find their perspective in those characters already on the streets I create mine. Someone like Bruce Gilden might have an instinctual angle that he goes down to when he sees a character coming, but ultimately we're all just looking for the right moment – I look for this within a controlled environment. There is of course a lot of planning that goes into a street photographer’s shots too. The street photographers that I love are masters at what they do, creating a raw feeling that captures a moment, without needing a lot of time to find these constructed moments.

That makes me think that your work requires us to think about what street photography means more than what it looks like.

Yeah. I certainly think about it differently than when I first started. I imagined it would be these magical moments being captured by photographers who relentlessly ran out on the streets with their cameras and just looked for shots. There's a lot more at play with these photographers. They also have very specific styles. Enrique Metinides began as a crime scene photographer and, like Weegee, he would find the angle that created a better story – he was a storyteller.

With my work, you can view it as hyper-constructed and detailed. But I only control it all the way up until I get ready and everyone is on set and waiting for it to start. Then, within that, I find the street moments where nothing is planned. You can't really control people. You can put a layer of costume on them, but once you begin, they have their own emotional baggage and they have their aspirations of why they came to set that day, sometimes jealousy. A lot of them know each other! All kinds of weird, interesting stories start to float to the surface, and that's not me. Those are always the best moments that come through.

If you were to put together a show of your favorite artists who you wanted to see alongside your work, who would you include?

I have my favorites like William Eggleston, Weegee, Brassai, Metinides, Arbus, Parr. I would also have to include filmmakers because it's all one and the same for me. Hitchcock is obviously a huge inspiration for me, for my still and moving images. There’s also Fellini, Scorsese, and Cassavetes – all of these filmmakers from the '60s and '70s. The Wizard of Oz and The Red Shoes – two of my favorite films. The Red Shoes had an influence on my film La Grande Sortie. The show would have to be about characters, people, and stories. The way that we seem in real life isn't necessarily who we actually are –  the costumes that people wear in real life, the makeup that women wear, the layers of clothing that men put on. What's real and what's created. We are all telling our own stories. I think putting photographers and filmmakers together is a more realistic way of looking at the world.

My relationship to film has evolved since I became a photographer. Growing up in Los Angeles, the film industry was around me all the time. When I approached my first film, Despair, I was looking at it more as a series of still images. When I showed my series The Big Valley, a lot of people that came up to me were asking what happened to the woman in the photograph just before, or what was going to happen to her after. I thought that was strange because people knew they were constructed, still images. So, I thought it'd be fun to give them a surreal look into the before and after. That was how Despair was made. Then I did the series for The New York Times with all the actors and, slowly, I started looking at film as a very different medium. It's invigorating for me because I've always loved a challenge and making any kind of film can be difficult so when something seems impossible it’s the best feeling when you figure it out. It’s one huge expansive motion into the unknown – nothing is more exciting.

Do you enjoy that collaborative aspect of film that takes photography out of the individual and into the collective?

Yes, I just love it! Having an idea that feels too big for me to do on my own, and finding the right team to work with me to be able to realize my vision doesn’t compare to anything else. Being afraid or taking on a challenge is something I will always embrace. To follow in Steve McQueen's footsteps. He took the medium of film and didn't try and extend what he was already saying through art, it’s a completely different way of communicating. Something he said rang true for me “For me, art is poetry, and film is a yarn—a novel, if you like.” There's so much in that that I relate to because his films are telling a very specific narrative story. Ultimately two hours is a long time for an audience to sit in a dark room and watch what you made on screen, so you have to take that into consideration and be responsible for what you're showing them. It's very inspiring.

Written by William J. Simmons