Alex Prager’s Unsettling Retelling of the American Dream

Borrowing from cinematic and cultural history, "Silver Lake Drive" is a luminous photobook celebrating the LA photographer's career over the past decade.

“Eve” from the series The Big Valley (2008)

“Everything around me is a potential ingredient”, says LA-based photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager about where she finds the ideas for her trademark stylised compositions. Considering that Prager is best known for her highly saturated and staged images of emotional, lipsticked females that riff on Hitchcock heroines, her work’s rooting in the everyday is somewhat surprising. “Real life characters and experiences always spark some sort of seed, even a characteristic, or the outfit a person wears is a thread to a larger narrative that I can build on. I don’t go out and seek these ideas — they float around in my world.” On closer inspection, however, Prager’s attention to the particulars of her day-to-day environment is what lends her imagery its uniquely uncanny quality. Drawing on multiple references — most notably canonical American photographers William Eggleston (“After leaving an Eggleston exhibition at The Getty, over 10 years ago, I bought his book and that very same day decided to be a photographer”), Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, as well as Hollywood cinema — Prager’s photographs and films prompt an uneasy sensation that you’ve seen this before. Perhaps, it was at the movies, or glimpsed on a billboard somewhere, or even reminiscent of someone you once saw, her images appear to reenact moments of cinematic and cultural history, but with a strange and compelling magic all of their own.

This magic is the subject of her Prager’s first monograph, Silver Lake Drive, a lavish and luminous celebration of the photographer’s career so far in conjunction with her mid-career survey at The Photographer’s Gallery in London. Over 200 pages, complete with interviews and essays, Silver Lake Drive — which takes its name from a street in Los Angelesprovides a comprehensive insight into a decade of mesmeric image-making. The book begins with Polyester from 2007, an ultra-referential set of images that explore the multiplicity and artifice of female identity in American culture.  It goes through to her most recent project at La Grand Sortie in Paris, an intense tour de force documenting the various stages of performance of a prima ballerina — the dark romance of which recalls the silver screen classic, The Red Shoes.  Certainly, Silver Lake Drive is a dramatic and technicolour testament to Prager’s dazzling artistic vision thus far. 

“Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach)” from the series Face In The Crowd (2013)

“It’s been fun and very challenging putting all of my work together in one book,” Prager tells SLEEK about the process of publishing her first monograph. “Before we began I thought it would be fairly straightforward — one image going after the other — but in fact it was an intense almost-a-year’s worth of work figuring out how everything makes sense together. I had to rip myself away from the experience of making each individual image and each body of work, and try to see it all as a whole, which was difficult for me.” This difficulty has paid off: the result is a photobook that emphasises the recurring characters and colours, and key themes and motifs that ripple throughout Prager’s varied ouvre, among them the performative feminine, thrilling theatrical scenarios — take seagulls descending on an unsuspecting Tippi Hedren type, or figures bobbing in an unreal emerald sea — and an awareness of what lies beneath the pretty sheen of white picket fence America — a trope commonly associated with the work of filmmaker David Lynch also. The familiarly of her photographic devices imparts an unnerving, tension onto her scenes. There is the feeling, as in Lynch’s films and TV shows, that all is not right. The more time one spends with Prager’s images, the more the safe familiarity fades and this unsettling feeling intensifies.

Although the influence of Eggleston, Arbus and Sherman on Prager has been widely acknowledged, she regards artists as diverse as David Shrigley, Pipilotti Rist, Erwin Wurm, Duane Hanson, Tony Matelli, and even Hieronymus Bosch, as inspirations too. The influence of the Dutch master on Prager is perhaps most illuminating: Bosch was known for his highly-stylised and detailed narratives composed of multiple, individualised figures — a technique that is eerily echoed in Prager’s celebrated Crowd series, where each individual, within a dynamic group, is accentuated as a beholder of a rich interiority all of their own. In this series and others, Prager’s work is remarkable for its scrupulously detailed and constructed quality. She builds her own sets and props as well as making use of her proximity to Hollywood film sets to fashion vivid and fully-realised characters and environments, which blur the line between fact and fiction. “I’ve been able to create my own world through district visual elements. I style every detail meticulously, even the tiny ones like eyelashes, lipstick colour, nail shape, moustache or unibrow,” explains Prager. Indeed, flicking through Silver Lake Drive, there is the sense that she has invented an alternate universe all of her own, one that is in deeper, more vibrant colour and sharper focus than this one.

“Orchestra East, Section B” from the series La Grand Sortie (2016)
“Irene” (2010) from the series Week-end & The Long Weekend (2009- 2012)
“Crowd #2 (Emma)” (2012) from the series Face in the Crowd (2013)
“Orchestra Centre (Intermission)” from the series La Grand Sortie (2016)
“Annie” from the series The Big Valley (2008)
“4:01 pm, Sun Valley” from the series Compulsion
“Act III, Scene 2” from the series La Grand Sortie (2016)
“3:14 pm, Pacific Ocean” from the series Compulsion (2012)
“Four Girls” from the series Polyester (2007)
“Rachel and Friends” (2009) from the series Week-end & The Long Weekend (2009- 2012)
“Ellen” from the series Polyester (2007)

Silver Lake Drive is now available from Thames & Hudson. The exhibition of the same name runs through to October 14 at The Photographer’s Gallery

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