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Alex Prager

Los Angeles as muse in the pulp-inspired work of a budding photographer

by Meghan Killeen in Design on 07 June 2011

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A young blonde woman holds up her hands against the frantic flapping of grey pigeons encircling her. Another female character, this one in a red skirt, floats listlessly in a dark pool of blue water, her discarded pair of yellow heels resting nearby. Invoking intrigue and suspense with her luridly-colored dramas, photographer ingénue Alex Prager depicts the fissures of deception through retro Americana scenarios that somehow look timeless. “I want the pictures to be a fusion of the past with the present. That's how I see the world. We're never entirely in one period at one time,” explains Prager.

Drawing on cinematic cues from directors Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch, Prager’s photos use exaggerated angles and theatrical lighting to create a melodramatic world of mystery with women frequently poised beneath low flying planes—Prager’s signature homage to the film North by Northwest. The suggestively bleak compositions are balanced by the bold hues of the vintage clothing and synthetic wigs that subjects wear. “People used color then in a way they’d be embarrassed to use now,” Prager reasons. In her work the artifice of color creates a ‘separation of reality,’ conjuring both a mood and an era characterized by unrest that lies just below seemingly perfect surfaces.

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Born in Los Angeles, Prager’s personal experiences have given her insight into several walks of life. In her teens, the artist worked a variety of jobs—from selling knives in Switzerland to working at a carwash. It was only after attending living photography legend William Eggleston's show at the Getty that Prager set out on a self-taught course in photography. “I was really moved by his work," Prager reflects. "I didn’t really understand why because I was just looking at something so seemingly ordinary.”

Motivated by her newfound passion, the young photographer began to exhibit her work at local galleries and spaces ranging from hair salons to hotels. In 2005, in collaboration with artist "The Book of Disquiet: An Immoral Drama", visually exploring the seven deadly sins. Following the success of her book, Prager went on to hold her first solo exhibition ‘Polyester’ at Santa Monica, CA's Robert Berman Gallery, a series featuring women in sun-drenched predicaments. She continued to depict the feminine fables of a world askew in her collection ‘The Big Valley’, which debuted in 2008 at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London.

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Citing her belief that ‘deep down all women are actresses,’ Prager casts many of her friends as models, including her sister and fellow artist, Vanessa Prager. Each character conveys an isolated narrative, but curious about what happens at the beginning and end of her stills led to her recent short film, "Despair", based on the 1948 film "The Red Shoes." Inspired by the image of a fair-skinned, fiery redhead, Prager serendipitously met actress Bryce Dallas Howard and immediately cast her in the film as the tragic ballerina. Although women play an important role in shaping the atmosphere of a scene, Prager also regards her hometown city as a fickle muse. “The girls are more like props to me. I still have to find the exact right one for the picture I'm going to take, and she has to inspire me—but when it comes down to it, there'll always be another girl, but there will never be another city like Los Angeles.”

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Whether it's the City of Angels or the women, Prager's work has recently been in the spotlight with her feature spread in the November 2010 issue of W Magazine, which includes the standout piece "Crowd" based on photographer, Stan Douglas’ historically re-created image, ‘Hastings Park, 16 July 1955’. Prager’s work was also on display as a part of MoMA’s 2010 ‘New Photography’ exhibition showcasing photos that ‘mine the inexhaustible reservoir of images found in print media and cinema.’ Despite her explosive success, Prager remains true to the emotional impetus of her images, stating, “Often once we get on set, all [these] plans and ideas go out the window and it becomes just pure improvisation at that point. I can never go about it in a logical or analytical way—it's more based on instincts and energy”.

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