Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive

Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive
⌲ The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramilles Street, Soho, London, W1F 7LW

During my wanderings on a dreary day in London, I found myself in The Photographer’s Gallery. Being an avid fan of photography and holding a certain fondness for losing myself in a cultural exhibition or two, I had nothing to lose, right?

Despite having never known of Prager prior to visiting The Photographer’s Gallery, I had coincidentally stumbled across Silver Lake Drive: an exhibition chronicling a decade of her work. And what a discovery it was. The spectrum of large-scale works cover two floors of the gallery, a real treat for photography fans alike, colour igniting each frame hanging on the walls of each floor with the audio backdrop of Prager’s short films playing in various corners of the gallery. The experience is almost mystical with the meticulous composition of each individual work drawing the eyes this way and the next.

My introduction to both Prager’s photography and filmography turned my previous knowledge of these particular cultural arts upside down. Her use of colour, costume and retrospective mise-en-scène broke all the codes of conventions I previously had in my mind. Each of her pieces boasts narrative possibility and depth, and seemingly evokes images in the mind reminiscent of the Pop Art era, perhaps inspired by the likes of Warhol or Litchenstein. Her composition and costume most definitely gives a nod to the late 50’s to early 60’s era.

Her subjects, predominantly female, reflect the promise of perfection. Never a curl out of place, lips perfectly lined and delicately pressed pinafore dresses galore, the performative females are a visual picture of almost perfection. However, Prager uses both body language and facial expression to relay an undertone of darkness, unsettling in nature. As Prager has previously stated in interviews, she grew up in LA where visual image takes priority, perfection is the goal in all aspects of life, but behind this perceived perfection often lies a hidden darkness. Her personal analysis of LA’s environment is clearly the influence behind her works, such as Sheryl (Week-End, 2010) and Eve (The Big Valley, 2008), where both subjects, though visually perfect, appear visibly frantic and perhaps even slightly fragile.

While it is true that emotions connoting a ‘damsel in distress’ character type are evident in a portion of her works, don’t be fooled. Prager’s portrayal of rebellious, androgynous women are very much present in her decade of work, too. Take Amy and Michelle (Week-End, 2010) for example, Amy sporting what seems to be a Mia Wallace inspired, black hair cut whilst Michelle injects the colour Prager is renowned for with her fiery red hair. Wearing prints seemingly iconographic of the early 70’s era, perhaps taking a step away from the prim and proper realm of the 50’s/60’s, a common theme in Week-End, Prager migrates from the emotive undercurrent of distress and steps into rebellion as the two light a cigarette with a rather large flame. Defiance, androgyny.

But Prager’s blurring of emotive lines and nostalgic recreations of eras gone by doesn’t end at photography. When asked in interviews what inspired her progression into the art of film, Prager explains the questions asked by her audience – what happened before you took this photograph? What’s the story? Prager makes the point that these questions could be construed as odd, as the audience are aware that the photos are staged: nothing happened prior to the photograph being taken. These questions don’t seem so odd when observing the emotion-filled scenes that these photographs capture – from the low angle close-up shots of the female protagonists, conventional of emotive filled narratives, to the long shots of women hanging from cars or floating in the Pacific: no matter the angle, Prager always manages to display an undercurrent of overwhelming emotion.

That undercurrent of overwhelming emotion transforms into melodrama in her short films. Featuring at The Photographer’s Gallery, Despair (2010) is a great example of this. Starring Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World, The Help), her eyes glistening with tears are transcendent of the building danger, evoked by the symbolism of the colour red, in both her Oz-like ruby heels and the pillar box red door she enters before leaping from a top storey window. Enter the paradox: much like her photography, Prager seemingly uses the symbolism of red not only to convey impending danger, doom and the distress of the female protagonists, but perhaps even power. The femme fatale imagery seems to take precedence within the females characterised by despair. Despite their despair, freedom seems always within their grasp. Upon leaping from the window, Howard’s tears seem to disappear and an expression of bewilderment dominates her face: she is free, free of the previous emotion. Perhaps as free as the plane that crosses over her at the beginning, perhaps as free as the bird which passes behind her. This realisation of her floating freedom seems to kiss the edges of her red stained lips, much as the final shot of her ruby slippers suggests: she’s not in Kansas despair, anymore.

Face in the Crowd (2013), Prager’s three screen installation is also screening at the Silver Lake Drive exhibition. Starring Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games, Modern Family), and featuring as part of her larger exhibition, Face in the Crowd depicts the disconnect of the people despite being so close in proximity, and presents the paradox of loneliness in a crowded room. Prager skilfully and effectively evokes the flustered and almost claustrophobic feelings of the protagonist in her audience – the three screens creating an overwhelming feeling for the spectator, and as Banks faces onto the audience, her hand resting on the window pane in front of her with a face full of bewilderment and despair, Prager invokes the same feeling of entrapment in her spectators. Whilst Prager’s photography conveys the undercurrent of emotion, her filmography makes way for a certain level of melodrama which demolishes any possible undercurrent and simply makes each short film jam-packed with emotion: despair, entrapment, loneliness, bewilderment, the list is endless. In consequence, Prager invokes those feelings onto her spectators, her short films staying in their minds for the duration of time afterward.

Prager’s success is evergrowing, her photographs featuring in galleries and museums all over the world, Musée des beaux-arts Le Loche (Switzerland), Lehmann Maupin (Hong Kong), FOAM Fotografiemuseum (Amsterdam), the list is endless. A brief Google of her name brings up a plethora of credible works she has done for the likes of W Magazine, Vogue and The New York Times. The future for Alex Prager looks as bright as her protagonists’ lipstick.