“The main issue, which arises quickly, is that too many of the works appear to rest too comfortably on the visual laurels of their specific influences rather than becoming definably hers. For example…”
A palpable mix of anticipation and expectation is felt when walking into Alex Prager’s first mid-career survey, Silver Lake Drive, at the Photographer’s Gallery, London. By showcasing key and career-defining works, the exhibition is poised to set in motion Prager’s validation as a leading photographer and film-maker working today, but that this is not the case just yet.
The main issue, which arises quickly, is that too many of the works appear to rest too comfortably on the visual laurels of their specific influences rather than becoming definably hers. For example, in one of the first photographs in the exhibition, Eve (2008), a blonde woman wearing a generic pale blue skirt and cardigan from the 1960s is being hounded by a flock birds on a mountainous California road reflexively evokes Hitchcock’s The Birds, so much, that the viewer automatically reminisces about the film, drawing parallels to that, rather than delving deeper into the narrative in front of them.
In her series Compulsion, four choreographed scenes in a far alcove show the aftermath of different disasters paired with a close-up photograph of an eye, four in total, which are displayed together in a tight square on a nearby wall, however, it is difficult to view the work as a whole. As a result, the shifting of our relationship from voyeur – when viewing the reactions to the disasters, to witness when we become the ones viewing the disasters, and back again, should be immediate and powerful, but in this case loses momentum and becomes tedious. An indirect consequence of this, therefore, is that our focus is shifted on to the disaster images as standalone works which highlight their suffering from the same problem as Eve.
1.18pm, Silverlake Drive (2012) uses a visual vernacular very similar to the one that is synonymous with Gregory Crewdson’s cinematically staged, absurd buckling of nondescript suburban lives. We see the front of a blue car stopped in the middle of a mountain-lined California road. The driver’s door is open but nobody can be seen; the only sign of life is a bird flying overhead. To the right, a neatly placed boulder blocks the other lane. The photo suggests something surreal, perhaps even sinister and the lack of people coupled with the strange, unexplained phenomenon creates a perplexing vulnerability that is common device found in many of Crewdson’s most noteworthy photographs, especially in the series Beneath the Roses. Likewise, in 4.01pm, Sun Valley (2012), a house in the middle of a field, again, with no sign of life, is engulfed in flames. Because of this, there is no sense of chaos or danger, and the fire takes on a strange otherworldliness. In these instances it is very hard to dismiss the potency of our reflexive associations, not just to Crewdson but others such as Storm Thorgerson, and their recognition for producing similar works means that we are inhibited in our ability to fully invest without hesitation into the narrative structure Prager is trying to coax out, leaving us with the feeling that her works, in comparison, lack the fortitude to be able to captivate and stimulate us through her own design.
“Prager expands on the narrative that surrounds her photographs through a logical expansion in film with varying degrees of success.”
Orchestra East, Section B, 2016 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.
However, in 3:32 Cold Water Canyon (2012), Prager hits upon something altogether different. The work is funny in a sharp, dark manner and the photograph, unusual in its size, tall and thin, is singled out from the square formats of the others. It shows the rear of a red car protruding into the composition at an angle, about halfway up. Smoke billows from the engine, and a woman in a yellow dress is seen hanging on for dear life from the polished, chrome bumper. The background shows only blue sky, so any sense of scale in relation to the ground becomes impossible. Its slapstick and morose, and the primary colours that make up the vast majority of the work produces a false air of feel-good, kitsch that juxtaposes dryly with the seriousness of the woman’s predicament. With this, Prager rewards us with just enough focal-points of interest, spiked by the humour that we can’t help but try and guess a possible underlying narrative; and most importantly, we don’t look at it and see a facsimile riffing on someone else’s work.
Prager expands on the narrative that surrounds her photographs through a logical expansion in film with varying degrees of success. Despair (2010), is susceptible to the trappings mentioned earlier, and in this case, the speeding, perpendicular camera shots that take the viewer from watching Bryce Dallas Howard as she runs up to the red door a tenement building, having been prompted there in a panic after being in a phone box and seeing a plane fly overhead. As she enters it, vertically up to the top floor the before moving across as she runs through the building and eventually jumps out of a window, are immediately reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s use of this technique. As we see her body fall to the ground in slow motion, which is toyed with by the sky transitioning into a cartoonish time-lapse where the sun sets and the moon rises, all while she is remains falling, again recalls the tongue-in-cheek delivery of similarly morbid moments, used by Wes Anderson.
However, it is film that arguably sees Prager at her strongest and shows her true potential. In Face in the Crowd (2013), she successfully creates a push-pull, one that should be happening with her Compulsion series, between voyeur and witness in a humorous way that both exemplifies the visual language of cinema and dissects it, in a way that is definably her own.
In a small room three projector screens join together, enveloping the viewer. The film consists of two contrasting elements, a claustrophobic crowd-scene, which we experience mostly from above, in which we follow Elizabeth Banks as she fights her way through a raucous, bustling crowd of extras accompanied by an exhilarating score, rife with frantic energy and a Hollywood-like production quality and the second, are a series of intriguing that intermittently breaks up the crowd scene, of often amusing interviews with the extras and Banks, each playing on a different screen while the others remain black. This part feels organic in comparison and the intimacy drawn on as the actors talk about their lives off set, or what we are led to believe is their real lives, immediately sees us empathize and want to know more before teasingly changes to the crowd scene and we are lost again, as people in the crowd momentarily catch our eye and we wonder what snippets of their lives they might reveal to us.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ William Davie. Images @ Alex Prager.)