Photographer and director Alex Prager is best known for her choreographed, noir-ish images of crowds, where the buzz is frozen and not a hair is left out of place. In her new exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in London, the influence of cinema is still felt in her casting and a staged, artificial atmosphere. However, this time she isolates figures in gripping portraits, a reflection of how many of us have spent a great deal of the last two years. And where her characters have previously appeared to hold themselves with composure, her subjects – or their outfits, at least – are now unravelling in real time.
In Part One: The Mountain, Prager was eager to create “stripped down American portraits” that democratised a cast of characters, drawing out the “commonality in emotion rather than cultural or social hierarchies”, the artist tells CR. Together, but apart, they each experience “inner turmoil, and the spiritual death and birth”.
The show brings these internalised experiences out (and up) into the open through the eyes of archetypal figures from across the ages. “I looked at archetypes in storytelling and mythology for a way to bring perspective to the current shitshow we’ve all been going through,” Prager explains. “I love people in all their uniqueness and eccentricities and I always go into a new project celebrating that.”
There’s a modern-day cherub, nude but for a pair of socks, and a cowboy, brought to his knees in either agony or ecstasy. A sequinned gambler and suited workers. Are they gliding in the air like paintings of mythological figures? Or flailing mid-descent before an inevitable crash landing?
“Up until we get onto set there’s a tremendous amount of planning around every detail and then once we arrive on set there’s a bit of letting go, feeling my way around in the dark so to speak,” Prager says of the process behind the work. “The natural chaos of a live set is where the really interesting things can happen and it always takes courage to allow those moments to occur.
“I’m incredibly specific and hardcore in my editing process,” she continues. “It’s always clear to me which is the final image, there are never two I’m deciding between. I don’t take that many pictures so when I get it, I know. Everything is shot in-camera and is practical, it’s important that you could theoretically touch anything you see in the frame. Post production is where we take it all apart and I have to put it back together again anew.”
There are motifs in this series seen in her pre-pandemic work, such as the image of a person sauntering upside down against a radiant blue sky – a blissful image complete with sun glare and a plane overhead. Its unofficial companion piece in the new series is a portrait of a man whose tie is all askew, Cheerios bursting through the air, as a plane again hangs in the background. What was once a euphoric scene now feels disconcerting.
In this exhibition, Prager distances these characters from symbols of what they do in life, ultimately asking what happens when we can no longer partake in the activities that define us externally: does it result in loss or liberation?
Part One: The Mountain by Alex Prager is at Lehmann Maupin, London until March 5; lehmannmaupin.com