Alex Prager (b. 1979) is a self-taught American filmaker and photographer.
Doing a basic research on the Internet on photographers who have covered crowds, I came accross Alex Prager’s exhibition entitled “Face in the Crowd”. The following observations are partially derived from the note on this work posted in Lehmann Maupin’s website (1). Some of the pictures commented here can be found in Alex Prager’s website.
Shot on a Los Angeles soundstage in early 213, Face in the Crowd is Prager’s most complex and ambitious work to date. The artist directed hundreds of actors on constructed sets to create portraits of large crowds at airport terminals, lobbies, beaches, movie theaters and other public spaces. For each scene, Prager taps into a shared cultural memory to create images that are familiar yet strange. The characters, clothing, hairstyles and poses are all carefully chosen by the artist to convey a range of time periods from mid-century to present and recall cultural references drawn from street photography and classic Hollywood cinema(1)
Why staged? Some of these scenes could perfectly happen in real life. Many of them do, and as a matter of fact many of the pictures look very natural. Others give away that it is staged, in a subtle but unequivocal way. This obsession with control seems to be a significant feature in many modern photographers, particularly from the Americas (Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson come to mind, to name some). While many past photographers were very fastidious with the technical aspects of photography (Ansel Adams, Bern and Hilla Becher), the obsession with control in modern photographers seem to extend to a greater control over the photographed matter, to the point of employing actors to play real life rather than capture it directly. I can see the point to a certain extent. It certainly does allow the photographer to have a greater degree of control over the concept and the aesthetics, on top of the rigorous technique, but isn’t it too contrived in the end? How different is this from taking a natural shot and then manipulating it in Photoshop? Many of the notes accompanying these photographers’ work make great emphasis on the expensive production sets and the meticulous preparations, as if these were to add anything to the value of the pictures.
I want it to feel staged to create that sort of isolation and disconnected communication but these aren’t reenactments of real crowds. I don’t want to show people what a crowd looks like. I’m creating the feeling of a crowd that has no substance to direct people to what’s going on right now in our culture. (2)
In the specific case of Face in the Crowd, the staging is part of the artist concept and consequently, there seems to be a purpose for it, as explained by herself in the paragraph above. One has to wonder, though, if a real life crowd with the feature that Prager is looking for could not be found.
Prager makes extensive use of high/low vantage points to accentuate her message. In Face in The Crowd, high vantage points helped create an aura of isolation, by allowing the spectator to play the role of a surveyor, able to scrutinise every individual’s actions. In some of these “Where’s Wally” setups, Prager would sometimes place somebody looking directly at the camera (or the sky?), as if enquiring who is watching them. This adds to the feeling of power by the spectator. In the 2014-2015 series of photographs, she also introduces extreme low angle PoVs, in some cases even photographing through a transparent floor, which generates discomfort and in some cases a sense of inferiority in the viewer, quite the opposite of the Face in the Crowd series. These low angle shots, probably taken with a normal to moderate wide-angle lens are taken quite close to the subjects, which tends to exaggerate the perspective and accentuate the intimidation, a feeling that is confirmed by some of the subjects looking down, towards the camera (and the viewer) with disdain (as in “Burbank, 2014” – see http://www.alexprager.com/#!/photography/Recentwork)
Curious about Prager’s work, I decided to investigate further and found a catalogue from an exhibition titled “Polyester” held at the Robert Berman Gallery, in Santa Monica, California between April and May 2007.
In addition to looking at the pictures, I also made some observations on the layout and presentation used for the catalogue, as part of a wider research on photo-books. In this respect, I noted the following:
- Pictures have all sorts of format, from 5:4, 3:2, panoramas, and are both shown horizontal and vertical. There is a centre spread in which one picture is amplified and only certain details are shown.
- Some pictures are presented on their own, other are presented in opposite pairs. Orientations are not mixed
- All pictures are in full colour.
The catalogue included a short introduction. From that, I excerpted the following:
“Prager’s cinematic approach is reminiscent of the mid 20th century angst and naivety that Hitchcok, John Waters, and David Lynch portrayed. Stories unfold with each photograph that stimulate the senses. Playful yet bizarre scenes are a balancing act between fantasy and reality.”(3)
Many of the images in the cataloge (some of which can be seen here) have a contrived, forced look and most of them show “plastic” characters which resemble dolls and which are overly made up. Some of the scenes appear “natural” (eg woman sunbathing – link) and are serene or contemplative, but in many instances there is a sense of urgency, of distress and subtle violence, like if something terrible is about to happen to the subjects. In two pictures, subjects appear to be running away from something. In the action pictures, there is a clear contrast between the beauty and elegance of the characters, nearly universally well dressed, and the brashness of their actions, which creates confusion in the spectator: we would never have expected to see somebody dressed for a party climbing down a hill, with high heels on, and has a balancing social effect, sort of demonstration that we are all humans with the same fears and urges, regardless of whether we are supermodels or plain ugly.
Many of the pictures include elements in the sky, either birds or airplanes which provide a nice balancing effect on the compositions and a subtle reference of Hitchcok.
The picture of a crowd (which can be seen here) contains several men running and a woman in the middle, partially blocked, and seemingly walking at slower pace. All of them are impeccably dressed. This again creates and element of contrast and separation and allows the eye to rest in one particular element, the one that is different from the other. The aperture seems to be small (there is a great amount of DoF, although elements at the very front are clearly blurred) and the angle of view appears to be normal to slight telephoto (50 ~ 60mm equivalent). The setting is staged and Prager was likely able to give precise orders on how the characters were going to move, allowing her to create the subtle difference in the characters’ actions that really make this picture work.
Prager has made other crowd pictures which have a similar theme, in which one particular character stands out from the crowd, either by actions, orientation of the face, position or the focus of the camera (see pictures including Elizabeth Banks in this article –> http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/16/alex-prager_n_4441057.html)
(1) Alex Prager – exhibitions (2013) Available at: http://www.lehmannmaupin.com/exhibitions/2014-01-09_alex-prager (Accessed: 30 August 2016).
(2) Frank, P. (2013) Alex Prager Photographs The Dark Underbelly Of Crowds. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/16/alex-prager_n_4441057.html (Accessed: 30 August 2016)
(3) From Robert Berman’s catalogue for “Polyester”. The text can also be found on the gallery’s website: Alex Prager – exhibitions (no date) Available at: http://www.robertbermangallery.com/exhibitions/alex-prager (Accessed: 15 September 2016).