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Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd

A look behind the complex scenes in the pioneering photographer's major museum exhibition in Washington, DC

by David Graver in Culture on 27 November 2013

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Over the last ten years, photographer Alex Prager has staged fantastical dream-like scenes behind every image she captures. On 23 November 2013, Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC launched Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd, which marks the young photographer's first-ever solo museum exhibition in the United States. The exhibition features 29 photographs and four films by the LA-based artist. One of the films, eopnymously titled, functions as the show's centerpiece and stands as one of her largest undertakings to date. The film and each photograph, akin to the paintings of Edward Hopper, deliver a vibrant intimacy, a warm familiarity to the color palate and an invitation to explore bold, personal characterizations.

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While much of the work features congested public spaces, Prager nails a quiet serenity in each. Every staged crowd scene deftly avoids the chaos we expect from lobbies and airport terminals, busy beach days and movie theaters. In place of it, there is revelation and intimacy. Each narrative balances private moments among throngs of people or sheer isolation. In order to achieve her highly detailed works, which teeter between fiction and reality, Prager takes on massive productions which require directing hundreds of actors across specifically constructed film sets.

The work within "Face in the Crowd" culminates with a new film starring actress Elizabeth Banks. According to Kaitlin Booher—Assistant Curator of Photography and Media Arts at the Corcoran—"The film that Alex Prager created for 'Face in the Crowd' is truly spectacular. As presented in the gallery, it takes the form of an immersive, three-channel installation that literally places the viewer within the crowd. Prager worked on a grand scale to create this film, as well as still photographs, and they inform each other in poignant, revelatory, at times even humorous ways."

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The film's producer (who has also produced all of Prager's past filmic work thus far) Jeff Vespa shared insight on the innerworkings of the production and the many complications from production to installation that would beget something of this size. "Alex was directing 150 to 200 extras a day for four days. There's a beach scene with four tons of sand in a 50 x 50 square foot box that's only one inch deep. We were dealing with those kinds of logistics," he explained. "We did 14 or so set ups for giant crowd shots. They're all different set ups, from a party to the opera, a movie theater. All of this was shot at LA's Red Studio's largest soundstage."

Vepsa noted that both Prager's technique and the film's structure meant that none of the actors were actually working as traditional extras. "Our wardrobe department had to touch 200 people a day. Alex worked with each and wanted all characters to have a narrative. We even interviewed some of the cast and that's how the film begins." Commencing with such a personal touch meant that when the complex choreography of these characters gets underway, a connection is felt with each, even when the star of the film, Banks, enters the picture. "Elizabeth is the face in the crowd. We do follow her narrative and her journey." Most importantly, Vespa said they held to the notion that "you can be in a crowd and each person has their own story."

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As Prager was shooting stills across the many sets, Vespa was operating the RED Epic camera with DP Ross Richardson, at times from a technocrane. "This meant that we had tons of footage. We didn't want to miss anything, but were getting half an hour to forty-five minutes per shoot with wide shots and close ups, all these details. It was all cut down to 11 minutes total." With a view in mind to show the film across three connected screens, both the editorial process and install led to many challenges. "We created a single screen version of the film, but wanted to showcase on three screens at the gallery." The center screen serves as the single screen version, but has been edited to reflect the punctuating imagery on either side and to make viewers feel that they are part of the crowd, which is further bolstered by a 7.1 surround sound mix. "The idea is to be in the center, be within the three walls. Those are 90-degree angle walls. They do not flare out. You really feel like you get this window into the individuals rather than it being the faceless crowd."

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While "Face in the Crowd" encompasses Prager's latest body of work, earlier photographs and video works are also being shown, including her short films "Despair" (2010), "La Petite Mort" (2012), and "Sunday" (2012). The exhibition at Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC will run through 9 March 2014.

Alex Prager, Crowd #4 (New Haven), 2013. Courtesy of the artist, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York and M+B Gallery, Los Angeles; Install images courtesy of Jeff Vespa.

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