top of page March 5, 2018

Alex Prager on Cats, Crowds and Commercial Collaborations

Check out the LA artist’s hyper-stylised photography at Lehmann Maupin until March 17.

Alex Prager is mounting her second exhibition with Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Hong Kong, a testament to how well her work sells in this market. Her photos are lurid, highly saturated and painstakingly staged photographs that are styled to recall Hollywood’s golden age, and often utilise casts that number in the dozens, if not hundreds.

But while her crowd shots are still part of the deal, this exhibition, simply titled Alex Prager, represents a clear evolution of her work. The self-trained photographer is known for having purchased her first set of darkroom equipment on a whim off eBay after seeing a William Eggleston exhibition, and her focus has always been on the staging of photos, rather than the manipulation via Photoshop and other post-production tools  – that remains true, but this time, the photos include solo figures, animals and even simple body parts, as well as her first exhibition sculpture, a creepy single index finger that juts dangerously from one wall of the gallery.

An artist that straddles various media (her art films are highly lauded, and often feature Hollywood celebrities such as Elizabeth Banks and Bryce Dallas Howard – she’s an Emmy winner for one of her pieces), Prager also seamlessly travels between fine-art and commercial projects – the day after her Hong Kong exhibition opened, she debuted a film for Hermès, and last week announced she will be represented by commercial agency Arts & Sciences. Prestige Hong Kong spoke to Prager at her exhibition opening about staying true to her artistic self no matter what the project, how living in Los Angeles influences her work, and what it’s like to direct 25 cats for a photo.

Later this year, Prager will also see her first book published with Thames & Hudson, a monograph covering her first decade of her work.

Tell us about the Hong Kong exhibition at Lehmann Maupin.

There’s definitely some new pieces in here as well as some pieces that I shot earlier, when I had started exploring certain themes and then didn’t take them all the way. When I use people, especially when I go close up, I tend to think of them as props. So this is kind of a continuation of that, with Hand Model, the model being a prop, and exploring different realities and different ways that people perceive things, and ways people perceive images in advertising. Exploring the artifice, the line between reality and fiction. 

And Hand Model (detail) represents your first sculptural work.

In a gallery, yes. So I’ve been making “sculptures”, but they’re like props for fictional universes, the things that live within those universes, and I’ve been making those for ages. Like the house that was sinking, that’s something I built with a special-effects team. The physical aspects of these fictional worlds is very important because it’s real, it’s the honesty in these fake worlds. That part has always been really important to me, the way that people might perceive something completely made up from beginning to end. Everything that I’ve made is shot on camera so in that respect it needs to be an actual object, so I’ve been creating pieces that are sculptural for a long time but I’ve never wanted to show something that is pure process, a prop that I use in an image. To bring them to a gallery, that never excited me. The idea of creating these things excited me, and playing with scale excites me, and changing people’s perception of reality and what they’re looking at is exciting to me. So that was something I was exploring with this, and the finger just finishes the line. And taking just the finger out of the hand that looks so passive makes it more intentional, like it’s pointing, and I thought that was really interesting.

Hand Model, Hand Model (detail) and the crowd shot Star Shoes (which features a newspaper advertisement showcasing Hand Model as a fictional advertisement) have all been hung together at the gallery. Do you ever think about how your work lives with buyers outside the gallery?

I always thought the finger would be really nice hanging over my fireplace. Beyond what I would want to do with it, I always love hearing where my pieces end up. I think it would be great if someone bought all three, because they do all live in the same weird parallel universe. They’re not meant to be together, but I think it would definitely be a fun way to finish it.

What’s the typical starting point for a piece?

Usually I’ll see something or I’ll experience something, than suddenly I’ll imagine the exact picture that I want to create. So for example I can look at an empty space, and if you walked by in your jacket, then suddenly I might see a bunch of people around you and what that emotional tone might be. Usually it has to do with some emotional or psychological space that I want to create, and then seeing something that inspires that.

There’s a real Hitchcock-Hollywood vibe to your work. How does being in Los Angeles influence your practice?

It influences it in a huge way. I don’t really work anywhere else outside of LA. It influences the ideas that I come up with, and to be honest, the thing that’s most important about my work is that line between reality and artifice. That’s Los Angeles. There’s no place I can think of that’s a better place for those themes – and isolation. Because there’s no other major city in the world, I don’t think, where you can feel as isolated in a city surrounded by people. But then there’s also the landscapes. It’s very eerie, the weather is unchanging. And then on top of that, the culture. I was born there, so being surrounded by the film industry, it gets down to process. I remember eight years ago when my ideas started getting bigger, I think I was watching Jaws, I looked around me at the city where there’s just film sets around me all the time, and I just had this moment where I realised I could create anything, any world. Anything I dreamed up I could create because that’s what people around me are doing every day. And so growing up there, in a way, you feel like you’re living outside of the normal world anyway, because it’s such a strange city. But then on top of it you can create your own realities, and people create fictional realities every day.

Do you like living in LA?

Oh, I love it so much. Someone was asking me earlier, would I ever make pictures in Hong Kong, New York, London. To me, these other cities feel so complete. They’re beautiful, there’s the architecture, everything is so stable and complete and you feel like you’re in a real city. And Los Angeles doesn’t feel that way at all to me. It feels very much like we need to go there and help, we need to go in there and mould Los Angeles. Like right now we’re having this great art moment, but we’ve had those before and they’ve never lasted. It’s a really interesting city in that it needs constant input from other people to stay a city. It doesn’t have monumental structures when you get there that tell you that you’ve arrived in an important city. It’s the people who are constantly creating Los Angeles. So that’s one reason, but also the creepiness of it, the underbelly. It’s so beautiful on the surface, and there’s so much promise of perfection but you scrape the surface just a little bit and it gets real dark.

You’ve made quite a few films, and some of them do also feature Hollywood stars. Where do you think the line is between an art film and a commercial film?

I don’t think there is a line anymore. I mean, look at some of the films that have come out. I think maybe seven or eight years ago there was, and then there’s obviously a line between a Hollywood summer blockbuster and Moonlight. I think there’s a lot of room right now for commercial films in Hollywood to be a lot more artistic. And I think the art world is making room for narrative films. I think there’s a lot of people who would say my films don’t belong in either world. I think [my films] sometimes confuse the art world because you kind of need to sit there from beginning to end, and often times in the art world, with films, it’s OK to walk in at any point and leave at any point. But I don’t know that there are any rules in the art world, it’s just what people like and don’t like or respond to. I love straddling those lines.

You’ve worked as a commercial photographer and you’ve also done commercial collaborations, like an Hermès campaign. Is it different working with a client?

It doesn’t differ. Ninety-nine percent of the people who approach me to collaborate on something want me to do what I do as an artist, which is fortunate. And the ones that come to me and pretend they want that, but then they have their own ideas and they just want a director for hire, that’s when I’m just not that interested in the project. Once in a while I’ll get someone that comes to me that wants to collaborate, to truly collaborate, if there’s something about it that seems interesting or challenging, like they allow me to work with new people that I was wanting to work with, build new sets or something that I have been interested in doing but haven’t gotten to yet, then I’ll do it for other reasons. But most of the time I have full creative control when I’m hired by someone, and then I’ll get art out of it.

For instance, my first crowd photo I ever made was through W magazine. They hired me to do a fashion spread but they asked, what’s your idea for a fashion spread? And I said, well, I don’t really want to use that much fashion, first of all, I want to use costumes that I rent at the costume house. And I want to do a 50-person crowd at the horse races. And they let me do exactly what I wanted to do, and they paid for it. That’s what’s amazing about some of these – it can be very worthwhile for both the artist and the client when they really open themselves up to there being a lot of freedom.

Do you consider your work personal?

Very personal. I wouldn’t be able to make it at all if it wasn’t. It’s coming from a lot of questions I have about myself and things that I see. So usually what is going on around me in culture, and whatever the conversations are in life, in the media and stuff. I mean this came out of how disconnected we’re getting from the physical world, like the more we go into social media and computer, the internet, I think that I need something I can touch.

Social media is also interesting because it creates a world that straddles reality and fiction. What’s your take on things like Instagram?

I love Instagram, don’t get me wrong, I find artists through Instagram, I find models that I want to shoot and ideas and all that. But there’s another side of me, the more out of control it gets, the more I’m turned off by it. The less I want to post. I just had a baby, seven weeks ago, and I now find myself completely disinterested by Instagram when I’m around my baby, just because there’s something so real on so many levels, whereas Instagram is “real” on a very simple, uncomplicated level. 

People take it so seriously now, it gives people anxiety, and yet the second you post it, you get your likes, and then people move onto something else. That’s the part that’s scary to me, because it almost flattens everything out to have the same importance if it’s on Instagram, no matter if it’s a selfie, puppies that need to be adopted before they’re killed, or something much worse that’s happening. It all seems flattened out because of the time spent liking it. My husband posted something about our baby and he got tons of likes from the same people who, had social media not been around, would have called him to congratulate him or come to see him, but because they liked the photo, that was it. He never heard from them afterwards. It’s definitely changing the way we interact socially in the real world. Scary. And that’s why I made the finger. It’s definitely pointing.

You cast everyone, you outfit them, you make the props and the set. Everything is meticulously controlled. How did you work with your feline actors for Cats?

That was a nightmare. We had so many more cats than are in the photo. We had 25 cats. We just kind of let them loose on the red carpet, and initially they kind of just scattered to the corners, but then we were throwing things. But people can’t be controlled that well either. I can dress them up, place them, and then they’ll start doing things and flirting with each other and just strange things will happen on set that could definitely make the photo better. So I just wanted to do a crowd of cats. Also for me, I don’t know if other people see this, but just the idea of a cat lady. Just the idea of a woman with a lot of cats, on the red carpet, it’s just playing with icons, iconic ideas and stereotypes. So it sits right in with everything I’m interested in, but it’s just … cats.

Isolation, fictional realities, cat ladies … by any chance do you ever feel like a bit of an outsider?

Definitely, but I always had that feeling. I never fit into any sort of structures. I didn’t even go to high school. I was always living in this different reality to other kids my age. I did look into art school. I found out after I became a photographer that my grandfather had been a photographer. I had never met him, but my grandmother told me that after I told her I’d become a photographer. And she gave me his equipment, which I never used, but it’s cool-looking. But I looked into ArtCenter [College], because he had gone there, and it just wasn’t for me. I had so many ideas of things I wanted to shoot and it didn’t seem right to not work on those ideas and instead learn everything there is to know about photography. Because I’ve always just taught myself exactly what I needed to know for the idea I had. So as my ideas got bigger, my education in photography and film got bigger because it had to. It was more about necessity than trying to learn about every lens and camera. 

Do you ever find irony in the fact that, almost unknowingly, you’ve achieved the American Dream?

It’s true! I have a baby, a husband now. It’s so funny. Now that we’re talking about it, yes, absolutely. I don’t really think about it too often. I still have a lot of anxiety around my work because it is so personal, and it’s not uncomplicated. These are issues that I’m personally dealing with and I feel other people are also dealing with, whether it’s very obvious or not. That’s what I’m mainly thinking about, I’m not stepping outside and thinking, wow, good job! But anytime I travel or pay for my family to travel I think, this is very cool. I don’t know how I managed. I was living off Top Ramen for years so that I could pay to get my film developed.

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