Double Take, Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive, 2018
Like most, I first encountered an Alex Prager Face in the Crowd picture with a double take, being quickly drawn in by the beguiling strangeness of it all. The picture’s colours seemed too vivid. The figures – with their intentional facial expressions and clothes worn like costume, implying a not-quite-recent past – suggested many hyper-specific individual narratives. And the gazes of these disconnected characters within a crowd were rarely directed to others; rather they sent my own gaze darting across the composition as if scanning the surface of an Abstract Expressionist painting.
Set in public spaces, from beach to airport to theatre, Prager’s crowds are seen from an opportune perspective – from above, like a surveillance camera– an optimal view from which to see the most characters. Occasionally, a single figure will be looking directly up at the camera (a surrogate for both the artist and the viewer), revealing the theatre of the whole enterprise.
Much has already been written about Prager, who was so taken with an image by William Eggleston that she taught herself photography. Initially pursuing a more documentary form, street photography in the vein of early 20th-century masters, she soon realized she could make her own unique contribution to the genre by employing fantasy, artifice, and, like Eggleston, luminous colour.
Prager’s photographic and filmic compositions, like Eggleston’s photographs, Alfred Hitchcock’s films, and Edward Hopper’s paintings, reveal the extraordinary lurking within the ordinary. Wreaking havoc with our involuntary voyeurism and our tendency to leap to conclusions about people’s characters based on the merest details of their appearances, Prager cues our own fantasies by representing her own.
Perhaps the ideal of a photograph is to capture the reality of a certain moment. But the earliest photography, burdened by its hunger for light, required that its subjects, whether a person or a train, hold still to be photographed. And even the best modern journalistic photography is prized for its storytelling. As critic Susan Sontag has written, ‘The camera has the power to catch so-called normal people in such a way as to make them look abnormal. The photographer chooses oddity, chases it, frames it, develops it, titles it’ (Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977, p. 34). One of the first and most famous photographic documentarian photographers, Edward Curtis, was known to have paid his Native American subjects to dress in compelling, if inaccurate, costume in what came to be regarded less as ethnographic documentary and more as a simulation of the fantasy of un-modernized societies.
Costume is frequently used in photography, theatre, or cinema to reinforce character, and to suggest a backstory. While Prager’s sets, or settings, are often generic, it is her use of costume that most extends her narratives – whether defining a single character, or, as in her crowd photographs, disparate characters that seem even more diverse and theatrical than real crowds. During a recent visit to the artist’s mostly nondescript studio-office I was struck by the small but intriguing back room that housed Prager’s collection of costumes and accessories. A close look at her pictures reveals that certain costumes show up more than once. It’s as if the racks of clothes that Prager has collected since her childhood, visible in vertical slices of colour and pattern, function for her as a great library of archetypal stories and references – or as a painter’s assorted brushes, colours, and techniques.
Most of Prager’s subjects are not posed like fashion models; rather, like street photography, they seem captured in some kind of motion. Her photographic images are always described as extremely cinematic, often suggesting stills from a much longer narrative. Prager makes specific and intentional references to Hitchcock and many other filmmakers. It wasn’t long after she became a photographer that she picked up a video camera to construct her own movies. Prager takes advantage of the abundant access to tools and expertise afforded her by her native city, Los Angeles: Hollywood sets, sound stages, costume and makeup, lighting, actor-extras, and so on. The red carpet and the beaches that appear in a couple of Prager’s crowd pictures are both physical localities and signifiers for Hollywood and cinema in general.
While early motion pictures ostensibly added another level of realism to photography through the representation of movement, the art of cinema, practically since its inception, has been described as dreamlike. The film editor assembles fragments of time and space – often indicating multiple viewpoints – in ways that resemble a dream. Cinema developed as a medium just as Sigmund Freud proposed a psychoanalytic dimension to the retelling and interpretation of dreams in terms of desire and ‘wish fulfilment’. Surrealists, from Salvador Dalí to Maya Deren, later took maximum advantage of cinema’s liminal position between the real and the unreal and its ability to manipulate time and space. Similarly, Prager creates a confusion between reality and fantasy by making use of photography and film’s precarious balance between documentary and fiction. That’s the double take: you have to look at least twice to discern what is what you already know, and what is different.
Prager has sometimes referred to her first video as a ‘moving photograph’, and uses her moving images to complicate and extend the context of her still images. Often her films emphasize the more surreal dimension of her narratives, defying time and space and gravity, encouraging a more fantastical reading of her still images. Prager’s first moving picture, Despair from 2010, features a Prager-like woman who is introduced, utterly alone and tearful, talking in a phone booth, which she exits in a hurry into a street occupied by more and more people until she is in a crowd and finds a red door that she goes inside. The camera pans and follows her up through the building, across a top floor, and out of a window, from which she falls slowly, and more happily, in a spotlight and through a sunset, until she disappears – only her red shoes falling to the ground. The short narrative moves from earth to sky, and back, in a progression from reality to dream. Included are references to many other
films and narratives, and different kinds of space, from personal to public to ethereal, all compressed into a colourful, hyper-stylized, moving picture the length of a pop song. Some of the clothes and cars might conjure an earlier era, a past before Prager was born. An aeroplane that traverses the bright blue, lightly clouded sky of the title sequence reappears as a portending shadow as the protagonist exits her phone booth; the film’s conclusion has her flying as she falls. The brief filmic journey follows despair from isolation, to alienation in a crowd, to a tragic spectacle of release and relief, and then absence – perhaps metaphorically suggesting the anxieties of an artist through the creative act. These may begin in feelings of despair, be forced into the crowd of viewers, and end in momentary ecstasy and even a fantasy of disappearance. In film, psychological anxieties are often explored in the form of a ‘dream sequence’. The images in Despair, as in all Prager’s work, inhabit a space between the real and the imaginary.
‘Dream’ describes the cinematic-like interplay of memory and imagination that occurs during sleep; ‘dream’ also describes desire, goal, imagination and beauty, as well as horror and surprise. It is something stuck between the possible and the impossible, the perceived and the fleeting. Similarly, an artwork might be material and yet elusive. Accompanying her Crowds series, the artist’s video Face in the Crowd features a character that looks much like the artist herself, a double, observing the crowd with her hand against a window and also being within that crowd– in the same way one often not only observes, but also sees oneself, in a dream. The transparent pane of glass is like the picture plane, or the Brechtian fourth wall, of the camera, the screen, and the conscious perception of reality and dream. The protagonist is curiously equally alone and disconnected as observer, and among the crowd of disconnected individuals that she observes.
In her most recent film, La Grande Sortie, inspired in part by the 1948 ballet film based on the fairytale The Red Shoes, Prager explores a similar dynamic of being within and without. The film begins by dwelling on the deliberate ritual of the assembly of an audience, another Prager crowd with all its many embedded narratives. A ballerina begins her performance on stage in a forest suggesting a fairytale. She is then joined by a male partner (prominently wearing a watch that suggests real time), who after a while is suddenly replaced by a woman in the audience whom the ballerina has noticed particularly; the woman is in turn replaced by another man and another woman in similar fashion, as the ballerina gains awareness of other individuals and becomes increasingly frenetically dishevelled. Finally, she disappears in a puff of smoke, her costume left on stage, after looking into the audience and seeing her double, who then departs through the theatre’s exit (sortie).
The ballerina and her double are perhaps surrogates for the artist Prager herself, who, it seems, is represented in ‘cameos’ in several of her other works, including Despair (which also features an exit door and a disappearance). If this artist’s ‘grand exit’ is more open-ended and less tragic than that of the dancer of The Red Shoes, who in choosing art over love exits to her death, it is also a more complex and self-reflexive meditation on the artifice that is art. In confusing the being of the artist and the observer, Prager suggests that an artwork, like a costume, is an externalization of self, engendering a kind of self-awareness, a double take – like a dream where one is both observer and observed.