Alex Prager

NGV International, Melbourne
14 November 2014 – 19 April 2015

American photographer, Alex Prager’s first Australian exhibition surveyed her work from 2007 to 2013. It included three videos as well as a large number of Type C photographs, some titled ‘film still’. 

Prager belongs to that group of photographers whose practice is sourced not in any particular film but in imagined ones. Cindy Sherman has long created such work, though Prager rarely uses herself as the main figure in her work. Tracy Moffat also works with imagined cinema (and actual film); Something More (1989) includes the best known single image of hers, though characteristically, even without being placed with the others in the series, it implies more of a narrative than do Prager’s images. Despite Moffat’s recent use of Hollywood film, her themes point away from Hollywood, while Prager’s are internal to that industry and our awareness of it. Prager herself names William Eggleston as her main influence, since it was he who led to her buying a camera and becoming a photographer. Certainly high contrast colour is a central part of her aesthetic, but unlike Eggleston, all of her work is fictional, evoking the women of Hollywood melodrama, like Hitchcock’s suspense movies or the film noir of the 1950s and ’60s. We complete the narratives she stages by drawing on Hollywood stories that provide, in the words of one of the chapters of the curatorial essay by Maggie Finch, ‘Artificial Collective Memories’. 

Until she was thirteen, Prager lived in Los Angeles, and she has lived there at various times since. She talks of its centrality to her work and the unreal perfection of the location and its skies contrasting with the darkness and danger of life there, especially for women. Those of her supersaturated photographs that are set outside, as most of the earlier ones in the exhibition are, feature young women caught in media res set against large expanses of those blue skies. Julia (2007) shows a woman in a pale green two-piece and silver shoes down on one knee in a patch of dried grass staring up at the sky in which a large bird is flying. We read her in danger, since the cinematic clues would have her running away from some threat. Positioned next to this photograph, Eve (2008) has much of her face and body obscured by a passing flock of pigeons. It takes no effort to recall Tippi Hedren in The Birds.

All of the women who are the focus of the images, and many of the bystanders that start to appear later in Prager’s work, wear obvious nylon wigs. Their shine in the cinematic lighting adds to the artificiality of the women, all extremely heavily made-up, in clothing that, without being strongly ‘period’, nonetheless recalls that of the Hollywood films we and Prager know so well. She talks of sourcing her costumes from thrift shops, and the focus women in their wigs and little dresses are not wealthy or established, rather working or lower middle class women, who are climbing the social ladder but are doomed neither to arrive nor even survive. The few photographs that do not show a woman in unspecified peril are likely to come from series associated with a video.

The first short video, Despair, comes from 2010, La petite mort was made in 2012, while the three-screen, 12 minute Face in the Crowd is from 2013. In between, Prager won an Emmy for a film commissioned by the New York Times magazine. Called Touch of Evil and not included in the exhibition, it comprised thirteen one minute films starring the likes of Brad Pitt and George Clooney. There seems no doubt that this success enabled her to work with the much larger forces involved in Face in the Crowd: at least ten speaking parts, 350 extras, a crew she estimated between 100 and 150, fours days shooting, two weeks pre-production, longer working on the music by Ali Helnwein, eventually played by a full orchestra. 

The ten speakers are ordinary, usually older, people of the type who figure as bystanders in the earlier work. They do not interact, rather they give monologues about their path to camera. The scene then shifts to crowds in various places, indoors and out, as the focus woman, played by Elizabeth Banks, comes into centre screen, first looking out onto the crowd while talking about being a child, and then joining it to become just the eponymous ‘face’. Even though the longer length would allow a complete short film narrative, the same incomplete fragments as in the photographs are provided. Still, to make any narrative sense requires viewers to draw on their/our cinematic knowledge.

Something closer to a narrative was provided in the other two videos. Despair showed one of Prager’s usual women walking through a tall building before throwing herself out of a window. Even if we do not know why she is in such despair, we are given a resolution to it. La petite mort provided much more of a narrative, as the woman swims to a car sinking in a lake before swimming to shore to emerge into a small group of apparently disapproving people, who part to let her through before she faints at the feet of an older man. We are not given any reason for her actions, but the greater length and complexity of the narrative casts the openness of the single moment of the photographs into relief.

The glossiness and staged quality of the photographs no longer make such work questionable inclusions in high art practice, nor does their reliance on the audience sharing knowledge of Hollywood formulae address only the older audience. While unfixed, both photographs and videos are very readable and their glossiness and super-saturation is part of their reflection of the place of women in the Hollywood dream. The fascination with the crowd that develops later in the surveyed period, obviously comes in part with being able to afford extra participants, but except to the woman moving through it, the threat posed is not quite so clear.

 

Alex Prager, Eve, 2008. Type C photograph, 91.4 x 114.3cm. Collection of the artist, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. © Alex Prager. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. 

Alex Prager, Film Still, 2010. From the Despair series, 2010. Pigment print, 40.6 x 50.8cm. Collection of Jeff Vespa, Los Angeles. © Alex Prager. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. 

Alex Prager, Crowd #2 (Emma), 2012. Pigment print, 142.0 x 151.0cm. Collection of Dr Clinton Ng, Sydney. © Alex Prager. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. 

Alex Prager, Crowd #11 (Cedar and Broad Street), 2013. Pigment print, 153.7 x 146.1cm. National Gallery of Victoria Bowness Family Fund for Contemporary Photography, 2014. © Alex Prager. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.