The hyperrealistic photographs by Alex Prager unveil complicated human nature

Alex Prager’s exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery oversees the last decade’s worth of her works and is, simultaneously, probably the most comprehensive review of Prager’s oeuvre so far. It features over 40 artworks including both photographs and films. 

The artist (b. 1979) started her art career with photographic works, and later on expanded her practice to moving image. This probably happened naturally, as the staged photography reminds a lot of film screenshots and Prager admits that she treats films in terms of series of moving images. They revolve around photographs, showing moments before and after a particular shot. 

They also remind of mid-20th century Hollywood movies. And if you did not know that they were made within the last ten years, you could probably easily mistake them with shots from 50s movies. The colours used are so vibrant that the photographs seem almost unreal, the compositions are carefully mastered and some of the characters are lurking at you from one corner or another. The people captured in the photographs appear also on the film screen and very often they re-appear across different series. Prager works with extras, but also many participants are her family and friends, among other her sister, Vanessa Prager, who is also an artist. 

The exhibition spreads over two floors, both intersecting films and photographs. On level 4, where the display begins, most photographs are in connection with Prager’s 2013 movie, Face in the Crowd. This almost 12-minutes long video is displayed on three screens, which gives an immersive feeling and forces the viewer to turn the head around, as the actors appear on them. The video is pure chatter, people talking about their relatives, jobs and random encounters. The main character, played by Elizabeth Banks, is only revealed later when all the actors start intermingling in the crowd scene and we get to see her slowly entering it. First overfilled with joy, later she gradually becomes squeezed. Face in the Crowd is a beautiful story about an individual in our society, but it is also telling about the society itself.

The Big Valley: Desiree, 2008 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

The Big Valley: Desiree, 2008 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

The artist’s interest in the politics of masses and public spaces is noticeable throughout the exhibition. On the second floor, her hyper-realistic photographs meet more of her films. One of them is La Grande Sortie from 2016, a work commissioned by Opera Bastille in Paris, in which the dancer Emilie Cozette undertakes an emotionally isolated performance on stage. It touches upon similar issues as Face in the Crowd, but the sense of isolation and inner troubles is escalated. Working on the commission was also Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godich, who sampled Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the soundtrack.

La Grande Sortie is also not the first commission for Prager - she did a series of short-films called Touch of Evil, featuring some of the best cinematic villains, for The New York Times Magazine and last summer she exhibited Applause at Times Square.

Apart from that, there are three more films displayed; Despair (2010), Sunday (2010) and Le Petite Mort (2011). The last one, literally “the little death”, but also a French idiom for an orgasm, is narrated by Gary Oldman and features Judith Godreche. It is another observant comment on our society and in a surreal way it shows moments just before and right after the main character’s death. In an interview with Phaidon, Prager explained that this film was for her a way of dealing with the duality of the world and of overcoming the inability to act against the tragedies around. 

The Big Valley: Eve, 2008 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

The Big Valley: Eve, 2008 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Silver Lake Drive is a thought-provoking, visually delightful journey through human psyche. Alex Prager's photographs and films raise an interesting question of who is the actor here (is it the visitor or the extras looking from the pictures?). Overall, the show at the Photographer's Gallery is a coherently-organised exhibition, which is definitely worth visiting. It is very enjoyable to go through, while the photographs also point out to serious matters. But beware that after spending some time in the galleries, you will definitely want to catch up with the old Hollywood movies you always wanted to watch. 

On view until October 14

The Photographer's Gallery

16-18 Ramillies St, Soho, London W1F 7LW