There’s a big, bright-red door a stone’s throw from the main strip in Silver Lake. Beyond it is Alex Prager’s studio—fitting, because Prager has always made photographs and films that elicit the type of mystery one gets when passing through a big, bright-red door. Her studio is in a bit of chaos. Through the boxes and photography equipment, the sharp-featured Prager takes me to the back room where a treasure trove of vintage clothes fills the room, tightly packed on hangers. This is the crux of Prager’s work, a world where the clothes and wigs invoke a time gone by, but where the emotions are universal. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Prager’s work, in both her photographs and her films, is at once a critique and an homage to the magical motion pictures made in her hometown.
Prager has never taken a traditional route to her career. She eschewed school for life experience; took up photography overnight when she was 21; put on her own shows until she was noticed; and finally achieved a kind of crossover success, straddling the art, fashion, and film worlds. Her first film, “Despair,” starring a pre–Jurassic World Bryce Dallas Howard, was shown in MoMA’s 2010 “New Photography” show. Two years later, she was commissioned by The New York Times to make a series of video portraits featuring stars like Brad Pitt, Kirsten Dunst, and George Clooney as classic villains, which earned her an Emmy Award for News and Documentary.
This year is yet another big one for the busy artist. Last month, Prager debuted a new project in collaboration with the Paris Opera Ballet called “La Grande Sortie”, a film starring ballet dancers Emilie Cozette and Karl Paquette, organized by Benjamin Millepied. An exhibition of her “Face in the Crowd” series is currently on view at the St. Louis Art Museum (through Nov. 1). And she will present some of her most recent works, including a film, at Galerie des Galeries in Paris starting on Oct. 20 (through Jan. 23, 2016). On an August day in the middle of a heat wave, Prager opened up her studio to discuss her early years, and how she has come to be one of the most celebrated photographers in the world.
I wanted to start right at the beginning: you were born here in Los Angeles, and you grew up here. Hollywood in particular is very present in your work. What did L.A. seem like to you when you were younger.
When I was 8 years old, there were kids in my class who were acting, and having to go do commercials or call-backs. It was constantly a part of my life, even though I wasn’t necessarily doing it myself. Going to school, you’d drive by sets, and there’d be times when, as a teenager, or still now sometimes, you’ll walk in somewhere thinking that you’re in a regular restaurant, and somebody will come up and say that you’re actually on their set, and there’s no waiters to serve you.
Did it surprise you that you ended up making films? Because, in a way, if you grow up here and you don’t set out to work in the film industry, that’s a conscious choice.
Totally. I always thought that that’s what separated me from everyone else in L.A. I was an artist that actually should be in New York as a photographer. I always liked that I was based here, because it made me feel different in a way, and that I was going against the grain. I thought about moving to New York a few times, but it’s such a different energy for me that I decided it was just a place that I’d want to visit and work in. But moving into films was definitely a surprise for me. It’s just funny, though, because the people that I work with on my films, a lot of them are based in New York, so it’s still the same world that I always worked in, but I’m now making both moving images as well as stills.
Your work has always been on the fringes of film: Your photographs are often composed in a very cinematic way.
I’ve always been bordering both worlds. I feel like I was never quite fully making work for the hardcore conceptual art world, and I was never fully making the work for the Hollywood industry. I feel like it’s always one foot in both industries.
You got your GED when you were 16, and you didn’t go to college. Did you not vibe with school?
Oh no. It wasn’t about vibes. It was circumstance. When I was 14, the summer that I was just about to start high school in September, I met a girl whose family owned a knife shop in Lucerne, Switzerland. At that point in my life, I was just starting to get into a little bit of… not trouble, but you could tell I was going to be a curious teenager. Los Angeles is a dangerous place to start having those urges for new experiences. Because you never know which way it could go. So when I asked my parents if I could move to Switzerland for a while and sell knives in Lucerne, they were like, “Yeah, go for it.” So I just went. My parents let me take a GED, and I passed it, because anyone can pass them really. Before they let me go, they basically said, “If she’s going to become an artist, having life experiences is probably more valuable to her than having academic training.” They kind of just made that call.
But there’s no way you could have known that you were going to be an artist.
No! I had no idea. I was just like any other kid: drawing and writing bad poetry. There was no sign for me at the time that I was going to be an artist. I wasn’t one of those kids that knew from a very early age. I decided to be a photographer when I was 21. I went to a show at the Getty, and I saw some photos, and I was just like, “Alright, this is it.”
Now that you’re older, did you ever take a step back, and say, “I wonder what it would have been like if I did go to high school and art school?”
Absolutely. But I’ll never know what I would have learned. I’ll never know what that would have been like, or how that would have changed me. So, all I can do is ask my friends what they got out of high school, and what they got out of art school. And usually, generally, they don’t really see the point.
A lot has been made of that William Eggleston show you saw at the Getty when you were 21 that kindled your interest in photography. Eggleston and you have vastly different styles. He’s from-the-hip, whereas you’re working in the studio or with very composed imagery. But is there a relationship to his work that you see in your own that you’ve carried with you?
I definitely see the influence of his work in mine. I think color is the most obvious, for me, because he’s the grandfather of color photography, and my work is all color photography, and a lot of it leans on the fact that it’s in color—bright, vivid Technicolor. So the primary colors are a big thing, but also the retro-’60s style.
I guess I also see a little shared romanticism, too. Some of your photographs are pretty direct. Like your “Desiree” (2008) is a reference to his woman in the grass.
Hardly anyone gets that reference. Everyone always relates it to Cindy Sherman, but it’s actually a reference to William Eggleston.
Then after seeing that Eggleston show, you got a camera. What kind of camera was it?
A Nikon N90s. I remember, because it all happened in the same week, in a flurry. I saw the William Eggleston show; I bought his book William Eggleston’s Guide; and I just looked through it that night obsessively. I told my painter friend the next day that I was going to be a photographer. And he said, “Well, if you’re going to be a photographer, you’re going to have to be serious about it.” And I said, ‘I am serious about it.’ And he was like, “You don’t even have a fucking camera.”
What do you shoot on now?
I use the Contax 645, and I always shoot with the 80 mm lens. Never anything else. I haven’t changed once in 10 years. I just love the way that looks, because it’s really what the eye sees.
So even process-wise, you shut off photography and you move into your film brain when going between the two mediums?
Especially now, yeah. I think in the beginning, like with “Despair,” the first film I did, I was looking at it more as a series of still images. And, after doing a few short films, especially after The New York Times series I did, working with those actors really made me think about film differently than still photography. Now, I really consider it a different medium.
There was a period of your life when no commercial galleries were interested in your work, so you were showing in a lot of unconventional spaces. Were you ever worried that a gallery wouldn’t catch on? Because I think it was a few years…
It was seven. I counted every minute of it. [Laughs] No, it was a fun time for me, because I wasn’t really trying to get into a gallery. That was an idea that was more in the future, like, “Eventually, I’ll be in a gallery. Eventually, I’ll have a show at the MoMA.” These were future goals that I had, and at the time I was just thinking about my next shoot, and how I was going to make that, and did I think it was good.
I think a lot of people put too much emphasis on that, and they don’t develop their work first. They want to get in that gallery right away.
Yeah, it’s very important to people. But I think that was one of the benefits, too, of being in Los Angeles: It wasn’t all around me all the time. Had I been in New York, I might have felt a little more insecure about being an artist outside of a gallery. But because I was in Los Angeles, and everything was about the movie industry here, I just felt cool that I wasn’t trying to be an actress in the movie industry and struggling at that. It’s not like there were all these galleries around that I was dying to get into. The odd time I would bring my portfolio into some galleries, they’d look through the pictures in a very bored kind of way. One gallerist even told me, “You might as well give up now, because there’s no talent in here.” She was like, “I’m doing you a favor, darling.”
Were there any shows during that period that you feel were important to you?
I had a show called “The Book of Disquiet” with Mercedes Helnwein. [My previous show], “America Motel,” was staged portraits of people in the Midwest that I would come across, and then start talking to, and then ask them if we could do a portrait together. I remember liking what was happening with that, and I loved the characters, which is now a big part of my work. But the problem with that show was that I didn’t feel like there was enough of a vision or an idea behind it. It didn’t feel like it was cohesive enough. And so, Mercedes and I decided to challenge ourselves with a theme. “The Book of Disquiet” was based on the seven deadly sins. We decided we were going to act out the seven deadly sins, and then make work based on our experiences. We only ended up acting out one sin.
Okay, so you overate.
We went to Sizzler, and we overate. [Laughs] We were 24. We were just having fun. But then we decided, “Forget experiencing the sins. Let’s just make work based on the seven deadly sins and what we know of them.” And that show was really important to me, because it was the first time I felt like I had restrictions, because I had to stay within a theme. The pictures were all staged. I was really happy with the work. We did it in our friend’s loft, and a curator stopped by that night, and asked me to show my work in a group show at a gallery. So that’s what led me to start showing in galleries.
Shortly after that, your career did take off. You had a solo show in 2007, “Polyester,” and in 2008, you exhibited “The Big Valley and Week-end,” which were some of the first places in which a Hitchcockian vibe started to creep into your work. How did this film noir aspect start to come in?
It was through being in L.A. and seeing this movie called Shampoo. I was working on “Polyester” at the time, and I saw that movie. It felt very genuine in that it was showing an emotional aspect of this break-up and this relationship of these people, but the clothes and the scenery of Los Angeles were very highly stylized, and there was definitely this wash of nostalgia for me. I also was interested in the way beauty is perceived, and how to get across this idea of the way people perceive beauty, but also sneak in these darker layers of how I feel about Los Angeles, and the scene here, and the industry. So I was really playing with these two sides. All of those works that you were talking about—“Big Valley and Week-end” and “Compulsion”— seem like studies for me of trying to figure out those two sides. And I did them in front of whoever ended up seeing those shows, basically, because I was figuring something out. And I’m still figuring that out.
Have you always looked at your images as stories?
I think from the very beginning, I was using storytelling to get the emotion that I wanted out of my subjects, so the story itself wasn’t that important to me, but capturing whatever expression that that kind of story would warrant—whatever kind of reaction—that was really important. From the very beginning, when I started setting up shots, I would make up stories for my subjects, and I’d tell them, “Okay, you’ve been sitting in a hot car for six hours because somebody locked you in there, and you just saw your husband walk by with another woman.” [Laughs]
Honestly, that’s not a story I ever came up with for anyone. What I mean is that it would be that unimportant: whatever story would pop into my head. The story itself has never been that important, up until I started viewing film as film. After The New York Times work, I started looking at stories as: could it be a longer narrative? Because the stories have always just been moments when I tell them. And obviously the 10-minute film, “Face in the Crowd,” and the film I’m working on now, there’s absolutely a beginning, a middle, and an end, and those are important. I’m learning. Film’s a new medium for me compared to still photography, and it’s become more and more important as I delve deeper into it. I don’t think photography and filmmaking are the same.
What can you tell me about the new film that you’re working on?
It’s for the Paris Opera Ballet. I’m really proud of it. It’s with this ballerina, who is with the étoile, which is top in the Paris Opera Ballet. She’s called Emilie Cozette, and it’s with Benjamin Millepied, because he’s the director of the Paris Opera Ballet, so that’s how that came about. It’s been one of the highlight experiences of my entire career.
In 2011 you made a series of creepy video portraits, “Touch of Evil,” for The New York Times. You had these actors who are legends: Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman. Were they receptive to you as a sort of director?
Yeah. It’s not like I was like, “Hey, can I photograph you guys?” It was The New York Times getting permission, setting the whole thing up, and they had chosen me to do it. I’d only done one short film, so it was definitely a risk on [New York Times Magazine director of photography] Kathy Ryan’s part, but she just felt like for the theme that she chose, and for the style she was hoping them to be shot in, that I was the one to do it. And I, of course, wasn’t going to turn down such an amazing opportunity, because I’d be a fool to. At the same time, when I got off the phone with her, I was like, “What the fuck? This is insane.” The whole thing was just absurd.
And what does it mean to win an Emmy?
It was so unexpected. I was really proud of the project, so it was great to get acknowledged for something that I was already really proud of. It felt really great to share that with the team over at The New York Times, and the DP, and the costume designer, the music, everyone. It was a collaborative effort.
What can you tell me about the show at Galerie des Galeries in Paris?
Well, the film is the main thing. And it’s four new photographs. I’m not totally done working on it yet, but I think it’s going to be four new very large-scale still photographs that are unrelated to the film. They’re all crowd photos, but they’re done in a completely different way than I’ve done them.
I noticed you have an interest in elephants and wildlife conservation.
Oh, from my Instagram? [Laughs]
Yeah, and your Twitter. Is that something that’s important in your life?
Very. I think it should be important in everyone’s lives. There are a lot of bad things happening with the environment right now. It’s an area that not many people feel they can help or control much, because it just feels out of everyone’s control. Every little bit of awareness, I think, helps to some degree. [Whispers] I foster elephants sometimes.
Wait, are you joking?
No. It’s just this group that you pay money to help the baby elephants that they find that have lost their mothers due to poaching. I’m trying to figure out ways I can zero in on where can I be the most effective, but also not let it become my full-time job.