Picturing Alex Prager at Anderson Ranch
If You Go …
Who: Alex Prager
Where: Schermer Meeting Hall, Anderson Ranch Arts Center
When: Thursday, Aug. 4, 12:30 p.m.
How much: Free
Tickets: Registration required at http://www.andersonranch.org
Alex Prager’s photographs visually overpower and consume viewers the way that Hollywood films did before we all started watching them on our phones.
The young Los Angeles-based artist has an instantly recognizable visual style — saturated with color, precisely staged, often melodramatic, often just a little discomfiting in a David Lynch kind of way. It’s no surprise that the photographer also has proved to be a talented filmmaker.
Prager is visiting the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village this week and will talk about her work Thursday with Museum of Contemporary Art Denver Director Adam Lerner in a public conversation.
Her photography and motion picture work has often required large casts of actors and extras, meticulous sets and costumes. Collaboration has become a calling card.
Last year, she teamed with the Paris Opera Ballet on her 10-minute film “La Grande Sortie,” starring the company’s revered dancers and featuring a score by Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich. In her 2013 photography project “Face in the Crowd,” she staged retro street scenes with casts of hundreds and enlisted actress Elizabeth Banks. In what is probably her most-seen film work, the 2012 New York Times online video gallery “Touch of Evil,” she created short video pieces with A-list actors — George Clooney, Kirsten Dunst, Rooney Mara and Brad Pitt among them — performing homages to classic cinema villains.
She doesn’t overthink the nature of collaboration or who to work with, Prager said, but tries to simply follow what excites her. Working with Benjamin Millepied and the Paris Opera Ballet, for instance, was “a no-brainer” when the invite came her way.
“Before I had any idea how I was going to do it or anything I said ‘yes,’ because I knew that was going to be an exciting project to do something so romantic and working with some of the best ballet dancers in the world,” she said.
The idea of riffing on the Hollywood classic “The Red Shoes” with those dancers, she said, also was irresistible.
As in much of her work, fear is the subject of “La Grande Sortie,” which vividly explores the mind of a dancer struck with stage fright. Prager herself has had anxiety with crowds as her international profile has grown in the past few years and has explored that feeling in her work.
Prager has a new “La Grande Sortie” show opening next month at Lehman Maupin in New York. It will feature large-format photographs that she shot as she made the movie.
While the film took the performer’s point of view, exploring her relationship with the crowd, the photos are all about the audience.
After the film debuted in Paris, following what Prager described as a “whirlwind” production, she returned to Los Angeles and dug through the negatives of photos she shot while filming.
“I’ve never worked that way,” she said. “It was backwards for me.”
Previously she’d always begun her work with the still photographs — any film ideas emerged from that (“Face in the Crowd,” for instance, included a film installation of footage from the photo shoots). Doing it the other way around, she said, changed her understanding of her artwork.
“I learned a lot about my process doing it backwards because it was a very uncomfortable way of doing it,” she said. “It made me realize how differently I approach moving imagery in narrative filmmaking as opposed to still photography. … I never stopped to think about, ‘Could my still photographs be stills from films?’”
Throughout her career, critics and viewers often have talked about the narrative quality in Prager’s photos — how they suggest a larger story, how much they look like stills from Old Hollywood. Working on the ballet photos, she discovered that she disagreed.
“I realized that no, the still photographs have every intention to be still photography,” she explained. “It was really interesting to discover all of that during this process.”
She’s curious about the prospect of making a feature film in the future, but sees that work as distinct from her photographs.
“The more I work in both mediums, the more separate they become in my own mind,” she said.
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