ABOVE: A STILL FROM LA PETITE MORT, 2012.
In her latest series, “Compulsion,” photographer Alex Prager explores themes of disaster and tragedy, and the human powerlessness that results from them. Prager’s typical subjects are eerie, possessed of an unreal quality that lends itself well to speculation of demise. Ellen, from Prager’s 2007 “Polyester” series, with her long, blonde Barbie braid, glassy gaze and pursed lips, appears more like a person trapped inside a mannequin, screaming to get out, than a flesh-and-blood girl of the early 1960s. Barbara, from Prager’s 2010 “Weekend” exhibit, again seems frozen; her stare is determined and her lips pursed as if she is about to act, but her look is too celluloid to imagine her continuing her story after the moment captured in the photograph. “Compulsion,” which will open at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York next week, includes a short film, La Petite Mort, starring French actress Judith Godrèch as well as still images.
Interview connected with Prager to discuss her upcoming exhibit and the transition from still photography to filmmaking. Prager kindly gave us the trailer to La Petite Mort, her third film after Despair and Sunday (both 2010), which you can stream below.
EMMA BROWN: Hi Alex.
ALEX PRAGER: Hi Emma.
BROWN: So, you are in LA filming right now?
PRAGER: Yes. A few more days though it will be done on Friday. We’ve shot everything but there are a lot of CGI things and special effects. Also the score—we are just finishing composing the score.
BROWN: How do you come up with the score to your films? Did you have a musical background?
PRAGER: I always work with the same composer, his name is Ali Helnwein. I don’t have a musical background. [laughs]
BROWN: Do you tell him the idea of the movie and he goes and comes back with something or do you show him parts of it?
PRAGER: I’ll show him what we shot; I’ll show him the storyboard before we’ve shot anything. We usually have temp music that I find by myself, way before we start shooting, and I’ll give that to him so that he can sit with it for a while and know what I am going for. He’ll go compose something that he feels is appropriate and we work on that together until I feel that it is just right.
BROWN: You’ve mentioned that you sometimes have songs in your head when you are writing your films; what about when you are photographing, do you envision your photos with music?
PRAGER: No, no I don’t. No, the music only comes in with the moving images.
BROWN: You’ve talked about how, when you were filming Despair (2010), you conceived it as an image that “moved a little bit,” not a film. Was that true with La Petite Mort?
PRAGER: No, that was just for Despair. When I came up with Despair, it was an image in my head, but when I was making Despair, it was a whole other story. [laughs] It’s a much larger process than making still images, it’s harder, more expensive. Everything is just much bigger. It’s hard for me to approach [a film] as a still image now that I know exactly what it takes to make a movie. I mean, I know what it takes to make a movie that lasts five minutes. [laughs] I can’t even imagine what it is like to make a movie that lasts two hours.
BROWN: When did you first get the idea for La Petite Mort, was it an image or a story?
PRAGER: It was a story. That’s the difference now.
BROWN: But your photographs are very narrative—do you not have a story in mind when you photograph?
PRAGER: I actually don’t, I have an emotion or a scene planned out. With photography, I like to leave a lot of the story, even to myself. The way that Compulsion came about is that I started shooting scenes, things that reminded me of what I’d been hearing on the news, or in the media. Or things I had driven by on the freeway. I was shooting the scenes in a disconnected way; I wanted them to feel less intimate than my past work. The scenes were based on random news articles about people that I couldn’t help; people I was never going to meet. I wanted the tragedies in my scene to feel not totally connected or intimate. Paired with the eye, which felt intensely emotional to me and intensely intimate, I thought it was a really nice juxtaposition. The eyes sparked a lot of things for me, it could be somebody remembering something they had witnessed or heard about, or it could be the person in the photograph that was experiencing a tragedy or it could also be the spectator looking on from a safe distance.
BROWN: When people see your work, do they ever come up with interpretations that completely surprise you?
PRAGER: Always, and that’s what I love about it. Even my printer, when he was printing Compulsion, his wife kept coming up with the most incredible stories like “This is the Wizard of Oz remembering something that happened in Oz.” She was just totally imaginative. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s nice to leave out a lot; it can become a lot more personal to people if there is room for them to put their own experiential time track on it. I haven’t shown this series to anyone yet, but I definitely have gotten that from a lot of my other work before. I think the worst reaction that I could get from someone to my photos is some sort of mediocre, middle-range reaction where they really get nothing from it, and they want to move on to the next thing. [I’d rather they be] horrified, pissed off at me, extremely disgusted at how bad of an artist I am.
BROWN: Are you looking forward to the opening?
PRAGER: I am looking forward to it [but] I am also really scared. It’s always really scary to release new work; I never know if what I actually intended with the work is going to actually get across until [I] show it. Either did my job, and did a good job, or I missed the point. I’m not sure yet.
BROWN: Each photo takes place at a very specific time—you have it down to the minute—can you tell me a little bit about this?
PRAGER: Normally I name my photographs after the names of the girls or characters that they display. This time I didn’t feel that was appropriate; I didn’t feel like you would know the person’s name. I thought that it was a really good way of expanding on the disconnected feeling [you get] when looking at a tragedy—when you hear about things in the news, they tell you in more of a clinical way, the exact time and where [the tragedy happened]. They are all shot in places around my neighborhood.
BROWN: Do you work with a specific color palette in mind?
PRAGER: I never plan anything in an analytical way before I shoot, but when I look back there seems to be kind of a primary color palette. I like to use really basic or classic colors, things that people have seen over and over and over again. Primary colors, at least in photography, have been around a lot longer than neon colors and really vibrant purples, hot pinks. Red, blue, yellow, orange—because of Kodachrome and the way that things were produced I think that those colors stood out more than any others.
BROWN: What about green? That was the color that first popped out at me when I was looking at the series.
PRAGER: Oh, really? I never thought about the green, but LA has a lot of greenery. [laughs]
BROWN: Have you always lived in LA?
PRAGER: I lived in London for small amounts of time, and in Florida and New York.
BROWN: Does your aesthetic change when you are in a different location?
PRAGER: No. When I’m shooting in other cities, I’m just trying to make it look like California.
COMPULSION OPENS APR. 5 AT YANCEY RICHARDSON GALLERY IN NEW YORK, APR. 7, AT M+B GALLERY IN LA, AND APR. 19 AT MICHAEL HOPPEN GALLERY IN LONDON. FOR MORE ABOUT ALEX PRAGER, VISIT HER WEBSITE.