The digital age has sent countless artisans back to the proverbial drawing board and into the ever expanding realm of do-it-yourself. From self-published books to the instant-music-careers launched by the plethora of rampant television singing competitions, introducing your own creative product to the world is not the daunting, red-tape rigmarole it was 20 years ago.
Los Angeles-based photographer Alex Prager is one such example of this emerging trend. Like most creative 20-somethings keen to distract themselves from the doldrums of nine-to-five life, Prager channelled her interests, namely pulp fiction and cinema, into an artistic medium. She bought a used camera, some dark room equipment and chemicals on eBay, and, following a how-to guide for amateurs, began snapping shots of friends against vibrant California cityscapes: years later, many trial-and-error discoveries have found their way onto the pages of Vanity Fair, Dazed & Confused, The New York Times, and Nylon; collected prints have resulted in one critically acclaimed exhibition after another. The works in question? Unnerving. Unsettling. Unquestionably alluring.
Her first solo show, 2007’s Polyester, premiered at the Robert Berman Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, setting the tone for a style all her own. Bizarre backdrops that virtually buzz with neon California electricity, hinting at a darkness that Prager herself assures is hidden underneath all of the beauty and magic of Los Angeles: a woman submerged in a giant puddle, swarmed by birds, and one seemingly in the midst of a Big-Gulp brain-freeze. Her sophomore collection, 2008’s The Big Valley, saw galleries from around the world sit up and take notice. The success of her most recent show Week-End at the Michael Hoppen Gallery was, likewise, met with fervent praise.
Where does this up-and-comer get her ideas? To a first-time viewer, it is immediately clear that Prager likes to embellish the already obscured. Influences of Guy Bourdin, William Eggleston and Alfred Hitchcock are plentiful throughout her portfolio; so, too, is the Cindy Sherman aesthetic of heavy make-up and freaky tableaux that feature stunning damsels in varying degrees of distress, unflattering and often terrifying physical contortions. (Think: Róisín Murphy’s ‘You Know Me Better’ video). Also, a signature piece from Week-End, Crowd #1 (Stan Douglas), is a nod to Canadian installation artist Stan Douglas, whose 2008 work Hastings Park, 16 July 1955 also features a cinematically-staged group, with significantly less vibrancy.
Bourdin supposedly loved shooting redheads because they reminded him of his mother. It seems only fitting that Prager’s new directorial foray, the whimsical short-film Despair, stars a resplendent raven-haired Bryce Dallas Howard, who packs a tender punch without uttering a single syllable. The titular emotion is successfully channelled with categorical assurance, culminating in a wincing climax, a process that the auteur seems quite at home with, given her unique approach to shooting which involves opting for a feeling rather than an idea, thus allowing for a more subjective end product.
Those quick to hint at misogyny need note that these tormented ladies (many of whom are friends and family in disguise) are not merely interchangeable fodder for the voyeuristic eye. Each subject has a name, as their respective portrait titles demonstrate: Irene sits, contemplatively, in a rain-pummelled taxicab; Desiree reclines in a lime sorbet frock, clutching a cigarette whilst in a veritable state of ecstasy.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art recently selected the untrained Prager to show in their exhibition New Photography 2010, which runs through January 10, 2012, a distinction she can add to an already impressive résumé. As for the future of this charmingly un-amateur mastermind? New material is slated to debut in February 2012 at the M+B Gallery in Los Angeles. She will also be participating in State of the Art – New Contemporary Photography at NRW Forum in Dusseldorf next year, from February 4th to May 12th. Long may she snap and prosper.
For more information, visit Alex Prager’s website.