Visual Culture

Pulling Back the Curtain on Alex Prager’s Mysterious, Cinematic Imagery

Ariela Gittlen
Sep 28, 2018 7:54PM

In the last decade, Alex Prager has become known for her photographs and films full of Hitchcock blondes, Kodachrome colors, and ’70s frocks. A native Angeleno, Prager plunders Hollywood’s visual history, as well as its industry resources, such as prop houses and special-effects technicians. She maintains her own large collection of costumes and wigs, and knows who to call when she wants to conjure a fire or flood.

Like a magician who asks you to inspect a deck of cards before using them in her next trick, Prager wants us to believe that her illusions are real. She shoots her scenes in-camera and avoids adding digital effects. “People know when they’re being lied to with CGI and Photoshop,” she told me. “If you walked onto one of my sets, everything you see in the picture [would be] there. You can touch it; it’s all tangible.”

Magicians, as a rule, do not give away their secrets, but when I spoke to Prager about her new monograph Silver Lake Drive (2018), she shared the behind-the-scenes stories on how five of her photographs came to be. In this case, knowing how the spell was cast does little to dampen its power.

Eve (2008)

Alex Prager, Eve, from the book Silver Lake Drive, 2008. Published by Chronicle Books.

A woman in a mint suit, with carefully coiffed hair, recoils in fear as pigeons swarm her. Unlike the majority of Prager’s work, which pays homage to Golden Age Hollywood films more generally, this image is instantly recognizable as a reference to a specific scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). “Everyone sees this picture, and they know exactly who I’m referencing, which was in my intention,” Prager explained.

Following her first solo exhibition at Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica, the Hitchcock comparisons came hard and fast; Eve was a way of both thumbing her nose at her critics and dealing with her own anxiety about her influences. “It was like, ‘Okay, you guys want Hitchcock? Here’s your Hitchcock!’” she said. “After this, let’s all try and move on.”

In order to create the flock of convincingly murderous birds, Prager hired an animal trainer who brought boxes of homing pigeons to the shoot. With Prager behind the camera, the trainer crouched just out of frame at the model’s feet, releasing the birds from their boxes at her signal. Because she was shooting on film and had a limited number of birds, getting the perfect shot required a bit of luck. “I had no idea how fast the birds were going to fly away,” she recalled. “So a lot of the shots just have one foot from one bird in the frame, all the rest had already disappeared.”

Annie (2008)

Alex Prager, Annie, from the book Silver Lake Drive, 2008. Published by Chronicle Books.


In the water, a woman huddles, her blue dressed soaked. Although the waves are calm, she looks terrified. Prager explained that she gives her subjects a narrative in order to create the mood she’s trying to achieve. “[At first] I would just say, ‘Look sad,’ but they would perform a generic version of that emotion,” she said. “When there’s a story, people get into it more, so usually, I’ll come up with a narrative to evoke a specific type of fear or grief or surprise.”

Annie was created while Prager was living in London, where she was impressed by the daily beauty of the English sky. “The clouds were always so perfect and layered, and the sky just went on forever,” she said. “It looked like a painting from a back lot in a studio.” The shoot took place at Brighton Beach on the southern British coast, where the cloudy sky and the foamy water seem to bleed into a solid backdrop. “I don’t remember if it was always my intention to end up in the water,” Prager recalled, “but when I did, I saw how beautiful it was. There was a tension in the water that I wanted in the picture.”

4:10pm, Sun Valley (2012)

Alex Prager, 4:10pm Sun Valley, from the book Silver Lake Drive, 2012. Published by Chronicle Books.

Under clear blue sky and a waning moon, a yellow house is engulfed in flames and smoke. The house in the image is a 9-foot-tall prop that Prager had commissioned for the shoot. Without a backup, she only had one chance to get the shot. After four minutes, the house was invisible behind a wall of smoke and flames. “No one explained to me how quickly it would burn,” Prager recalled. “Originally, I had planned to have people in the shot, but decided I liked it better with just the striking beauty of the landscape.”

4:10pm, Sun Valley is anuncanny image—it looks true, but also somehow wrong; real, but also imaginary. “That’s one of the ways I use miniatures,” Prager said. “I’m creating imaginary worlds that are so closely mirroring our own. The fire, the water—it’s all real.”

2pm, Interstate 110, (2012)

Alex Prager, 2pm Interstate 110, from the book Silver Lake Drive, 2012. Published by Chronicle Books.

Unceremoniously, a golden Chevrolet sedan is swallowed by a sinkhole in the middle of the 110 Freeway. “Los Angeles does not have great roads, so I thought it would be funny to do my take on an L.A. highway,” Prager said of 2pm, Interstate 110. “I like boiling things down to a simple image. That’s what I’m doing with all my work, trying to break it down into its simplest form so that it becomes universal.”

To create this image, Prager captured each element in-camera and combined them into a single composite, necessitating many hours of hidden labor. In order to capture the perfectly framed downtown skyline, Prager’s friend drove her up and down the freeway for hours. “We just drove in circles until the cars on the road, the plane in the sky, and the speed limit sign were all in perfect alignment,” she explained. To show the car convincingly sinking, Prager used a little bit of movie magic by sinking a junk car in a movie pool where large objects can be submerged in deep water, similar to the climactic scenes in the movie Titanic.

Crowd #3 (2013)

Alex Prager, Crowd #3, from the book Silver Lake Drive, 2013. Published by Chronicle Books.

On a busy beach seen from above, each figure is alone with his or her thoughts, with the exception of a couple embracing in the background. The image is from Prager’s 2013 “Face in the Crowd” series, which employed 350 extras and 75 crew members over a four-day shoot. “I mix professional extras with strangers I find on the street, with my family members and friends,” Prager explained. (Her sister, the painter Vanessa Prager, appears in every photograph in the series, dressed as a different character.)

This mix of strangers and friends, and of professionals and amateurs, created a lively atmosphere on set, allowing unexpected moments to make their way into Prager’s work. “Crowds kind of mimic fire and water,” she mused. “They’re hard to control.”

Although the scene is crowded, the photo’s precise composition, air of nostalgia, and limited color palette give it a feeling of calm. For Prager, this aesthetic is strategic. “I think there’s a safety in simplifying,” Prager said. “And there’s safety in nostalgia, because you feel like you’ve seen it before. It’s very useful when I’m layering other things underneath that aren’t safe or easy at all.”

Ariela Gittlen