Who's That Girl? Alex Prager


What did you eat today?

When was your first kiss?

What dream did you have this morning?

What did you do yesterday?


These are the questions that Alex Prager asked when interviewing the cast from her short film Face in the Crowd (2013).  Still wearing the costumes and make- up of their characters from the film, the resulting interviews submerge the viewer into a private world of emotions and experiences.  Some are flirty and philosophical – two bikini girls discussing their love lives, a glamorous elderly woman talking about her divorce after 30 years of marriage, whereas others are heart rending and tragic – a fragile looking Asian man wearing a bow tie, talking about his search for love, and a younger man confessing to his habit of drinking alone at home and how, if he had money, he would prefer to drink in a bar.  The artificiality of costumes and the make-up create a striking contrast with the intimate honesty of the interviews.  As you are drawn further into these private worlds, you begin to wonder what is real and what is fiction.  In the film, the place is unmistakably Los Angeles, America.  The colour and costumes reference the Technicolor Hollywood movies of the 1960s, but small details like the plastic lid from a Starbucks coffee cup, a rolled copy of a newspaper showing Michelle Obama’s face seem to throw this time period into doubt.  Prager’s “Hitchcock” blonde is seen watching then moving slowly through a friendly crowd of people.  However, before long, the crowd thickens and the mood changes.  She finds herself becoming increasingly overwhelmed and distressed as she struggles against the jostling tide of people moving in the opposite direction.

Alex Prager’s first solo show in Asia at Lehmann Maupin Gallery, Hong Kong, also includes five photographs that were commissioned for the show.  Larger than life, employing the same Technicolor aesthetic, the large format colour photographs show different scenarios, a bus station (Simi Valley, 2014) and a diverse crowd of people at a race track (Hollywood Park, 2014).  Others are taken from the extreme point of view of someone lying on the ground, distorting the bodies and faces of people looking down (Burbank, 2014 and Culver City, 2014).   With their exaggerated features, red cheeks, unibrows, and heavy make up and outlandish costumes, what lies behind this strange world of colourful characters that Prager has constructed using the visual language of Hollywood of the past?

Prager is a self-taught artist and began taking photographs in her early 20s, developing a strong interest in photography the moment she discovered that it could be used for something other than advertisements.  Prager studied at home and in the library, researching everything classified under the subject “photography”.  An exhibition of the highly influential work of photographic work “William Eggleston’s Guide” (published in 1976) by American artist William Eggleston left a profound impression on her.  Using colour film to depict suburban Memphis street scenes, domestic interiors and portraits of the people who lived there, Eggleston’s work broke new ground, destroying the dominance of black and white photography. “The second I saw his pictures I was just struck by how mundane they were and how emotionally, I was overcome by these images that I was looking at that seemed like there was nothing to them but affected me so strongly.” 

Growing up in Los Angeles, like many of her school friends, Prager was involved in acting as a child, an experience that she had forgotten until recently -  “I never really did anything noteworthy except I was on an episode of “Tales from the Crypt” it was a horror show from HBO it was when I was nine or ten years old.  It was all basically silly commercials.  It was only recently that that question has come up.  I wonder how much has influenced me because I completely forgot that period of my life.”

Prager’s home city of Los Angeles, with its urban sprawl and unchanging blue skies is also the setting for much of her work.   “There’s a ball and chain there.  I have always had a love and hate relationship with Los Angeles because of all of these reasons why people don’t like LA  - everyone has to drive, you don’t get public transport, the good things about the weather always being the same are also what you hate about the city.  The film industry kind of magnifies the superficial side to the city but every time I leave LA I remember all the reasons why I love it and so I always find myself back there trying to take pictures. Or, trying to create images outside of Los Angeles I find myself creating pictures that look like Los Angeles.  It’s this vicious cycle.”

In Face in the Crowd Prager uses the dynamics of the crowd and the way that a crowd changes the relationships between people to examine her own relationships to crowds.  “Not many people mention the lack of crowds in Los Angeles.  I think that’s probably why I am interested in crowds a little bit more. Living in London for a while and then living in New York, the second you walk out onto the sidewalk you are hit with all these people and it was very jarring for me after living in LA.  I found it very unnerving and very challenging.  Even a small crowd of 15-20 people becomes its own kind of monster in a way.  It can bring up all these different emotions” 

Prager’s short film relies heavily on the imagery created by Hollywood movies of the past to construct a world where, despite its obvious artificiality, all things exist - “I am trying to use the tools that Hollywood used in the past that are being used as a kind of a veil for a world where all kinds of things exist.  In using that veil, the lights and the make-up, the characters and the strong colours and all that, underneath that I can have more freedom to speak on any subject.  Hollywood has changed the way we think about certain subjects, bringing awareness to certain areas and it’s that part that I’m really interested in.  It’s really an incredible tool for speaking openly on many different subjects on many different levels in ways you would ordinarily be able to speak on it you were just telling it raw.”  By creating a fictional world, Prager is able to explore genuine human emotion in ways that Hollywood has perfected.  “I am trying to create an honesty underneath the whole façade of this fictional world.  I know my emotions and I know what I have experienced very well.  I’m sure if I were a man I would be photographing men because I really need that line of honesty to come through and I am trying to represent emotions that I have experienced. 

In typical movie structure, we are used to being introduced to a character and the circumstances of their lives in the first act.  The confessional-style interviews at the beginning of Face in the Crowd create an immediate emotional bond between the viewer and the character.  Whilst we are left wondering how many of these stories are genuine, fake or real, we cannot help being moved by the stories they tell.  As we begin to recognize their faces in the film and stills, the crowd suddenly seems to be less anonymous and less intimidating.   “When I first thought of the idea of (the film) Face in the Crowd I wanted to show the two sides  - the individual and their personal story and the sea of anonymous faces to feel overwhelming.  So that was the idea and I thought the one way to show that is to do these interviews with people and perhaps some of them be real and some of them be these mocked up characters.  I wanted to constantly be thrown in and out of reality.  The questions I asked them were very simple questions.  I wasn’t trying to evoke really intense personal stories, I just wanted very simple honest answers.   The second I asked the question, just getting an honest response from someone about their life it was overwhelming to me.  All the crew behind me and I we were just completely overwhelmed by the power of just a simple honest story of someone’s life.”

Hollywood & Vine, Alex Prager, 2014

The film Face in the Crowd was a huge production using 400 actors and a specially commissioned orchestral score.  Every detail was inspected by the artist, from make-up and costume, to the colours worn by each character and where they were to stand.  The 400 actors for the choreographed crowd scenes were recruited from strangers, friends and family.  By including people familiar to her into the crowd scenes, the whole dynamic of the crowd changes.  Whilst the artist herself does not appear in any of the work, one face appears time and time again in the film stills, sometimes as a young woman with long dark brown hair and false eyelashes sipping a can of Dr. Pepper, or as an ash blond fresh-faced teenager with eyeglasses, or as lost-looking woman wearing a striped blouse amongst a throng of people.  The young woman is the artist’s sister, through whom she lives vicariously in the photographs.  “I wanted her to be what you are looking for, the face in the crowd but then I also wanted to you notice other faces in the crowd.  It’s definitely not called “Faces in the Crowd”.  My sister, we’re really close.  She’s five years younger, she’s a painter, she is the closest person to me.  She kind of represents the reality of my world, my emotions, and then the other people represent the fictional world, if you were to give people labels”.

The five photographs on display in the Hong Kong show were made some time after Face in the Crowd.  Using oblique camera angles taken from the ground or from a distance, these later images appear to isolate the viewer, emphasizing the space around each individual – “What I was trying to accomplish in these photographs was to show the space around people, each person being a little island within the crowd.  You can feel lonelier within a crowd than you can ever feel on your own.”  Unlike Face in the Crowd, there are no familiar faces and we are not drawn towards a single person.  The photographs mark the time that has passed from the making of the film and the changes in the artist’s life - “Where I am at in my life right now feels like a very transient period where it feels like there’s a stillness and anticipation, knowing some things are coming up but nothing’s quite happening right now and its giving me anxiety so I wanted the pictures to feel distorted and transient. There’s never any particular strong focus on any one subject, especially if you look at Simi Valley, the one from the bus there’s no strong focus on any particular individual there.  I’m hoping that you will look at certain individuals, but you glaze over everyone.”

Both Prager’s film and photographs present the kind of fictional reality to which we have become accustomed through Hollywood movies and we judge the success of such movies on how realistically the characters are portrayed and how well they communicate the complexity of human emotions when such characters are placed in challenging situations.  How the characters feel or how they deal with those situations is often a reflection of how we feel, how we have behaved in similar situations, how we imagine we would behave or how we have seen others behave.  Whilst the Hollywood worlds created by the artist in Face in the Crowd and in her photographs are fictional and intentionally exaggerated, they allow her and the viewer to reflect more closely on how we connect as individuals and the different roles that we play depending on the people around us.


Davina Lee


This article was first published in Chinese in Vogue China, June 2015 edition