Compulsion and La Petite Mort

Amanda Maddox with Alex Prager

Alex Prager's Subversive Narratives

In April 2012, Alex Prager presented her newest series, Compulsion, as well as her most recent film, La Petite Mort, at galleries in Los Angeles, New York, and London. On the occasion of that show, Prager spoke at her studio about her native Los Angeles, her thoughts concerning the women in her photographs, and the personal experiences that inform her work with Amanda Maddox, assistant curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Amanda Maddox: How would you describe your relationship with Los Angeles?

Alex Prager: I think I don’t really think about it that much. Not that I don’t think about LA that much, just that I don’t think about how it relates to my work that much. But I can tell that whenever I’ve tried to shoot other places, I always try to make it look like southern California.

AM: Because of the colors?

AP: I don’t know. Because of everything. The space, the colors, the mood that the weather brings, the stillness and monotony that the same weather can lay on someone. There’s something really strange about this city that no other place has, and it’s not just about the way it looks, it’s how it feels. I think that’s a lot of what my pictures are about.... Right now in my life I wouldn’t choose to shoot somewhere else for my series...I’ll have a location in my head – I’ve never seen it before, it’s totally made up – but I can always find it in LA because we have such diverse architecture and streets.

AM: But that said there is an LA quality to your work...

AP: Most of the pictures I take are shot within a ten block radius of where I live. Call it lazy. Call it whatever you want [laughs].

AM: Do you find that you’re becoming identified with this place? And is that okay?

AP: I never meant for that to happen, but it’s happening because it is that way. I love this city so much and I also hate it. Because I have that mixed emotion towards it, I can stay interested. If it was just pure love, like I have with Paris or London or even New York – I really love those cities, but I don’t feel that [tension].

AM: When did staging models become part of your work?

AP: From the very beginning. I was messing around with dressing up my friends. I was living at the Asbury at the time, in Koreatown, and it had this huge lobby with a courtyard, very 1920s art deco style. I’d have my friends come over at midnight. We’d drink wine and I’d take pictures of them doing whatever… and then I’d develop the pictures later on that night.

AM: The women in your pictures tend to represent a certain generation, and often include your friends. Is that intentional?

AP: I’m trying to create a world that I know, so…I noticed that when I was 25, taking pictures…the people that I’d want to use were 25. Now that I’m 32, I’m interested in taking pictures of 32 year-olds. Definitely the people I’m interested in taking pictures of have gotten older with me. I think it has to do with wanting to relate to the character that I’m trying to mock up so that it can feel real to me.

AM: They always say ‘write what you know’.

AP: Exactly, which is I think why men haven’t worked out as well as I wished they would have.

AM: Why do you think that is?

AP: When you know something really well, it comes out naturally. When I photograph a woman I really understand the emotions a woman is capable of expressing in certain situations, at least that I’m capable of expressing. I can at least have that that I know really well. Whereas with men, they always end up in the background.

AM: Is there ever a power dynamic involved when it comes to directing men?

AP: No, it’s not like that at all...You know, I guess I just really like the pictures where I’m telling a story with the woman as a main character. There’s that vulnerable aspect, especially when men are kind of looking on. Men are very strong and they represent a certain power that women don’t have and will never have because we’re women. I really like that…there’s a certain story that comes with that.

AM: Do you think about the woman as heroine of the story you create [in your photographs] or has having a role in the picture?

AP: I don’t think much about them to be honest. Thinking about all of the analytical specifics of the character while shooting has never gotten me very far, even in film. It’s nice to have some sort of make believe story to go off of. And yes, generally when I’m shooting if I need to give direction then I will exaggerate the character’s old-school femininity: “You’re the vulnerable housewife whose husband is cheating on you and you’re sad every night….” Because these are classic portrayals of women that people can instantly grab onto. It seems very familiar. And it gets me a range of emotions in a certain band that I’m looking for. Getting into what it all means isn’t that important for me because what I’m looking for is [that] it’s communicating something [but] that’s not really telling you everything...

AM: Would you say that you’re not trying to build a narrative in your pictures?

AP: I’m trying to build up enough of a narrative to spark imagination full-on. I use myself and my experiences and my friends’ experiences to inspire these little adventures. I’m absolutely a strong woman. I have very specific ideas about what I think is right and wrong. But I’m also very weak at times and very vulnerable. I think these are things that all women can relate to. Men can probably relate to them too but they would probably express it in a different way. I can just talk about what I know, and I know all of that really well… I’m trying to get the full spectrum of all the lower ways you can feel. I’m not too interested in enthusiasm and cheerfulness right now.

AM: There is a dark element in your work, particularly in the new series Compulsion.

AP: I’m interested in the dramatic part of life. I think it’s really an easy field for me to play in as an artist because I think other people are generally interested in that, too. It’s just fun, there’s something about it that’s really playful...but it’s all inspired by the real world....[what’s] going on in our world that nobody really feels comfortable talking about on a daily basis. If I were to actually show you our world and what I’m unhappy with or disappointed by, the way it looks, it would probably have a lot of similarities with what I’m showing in my bright poppy-colored pictures but it just wouldn’t be as fun to look at, and probably no one would really want to look at it because it’s too heavy. Who wants to look at really sad stuff all day?

AM: In Compulsion, the titles are locations in LA. Were those real-life crime scenes?

AP: No, [the photographs] were inspired by events that have taken place throughout history, but more recently as well. All of the talk [in 2012] …was apocalyptic. Then weird stuff was happening in the news…there were the birds falling from the sky…in Alabama or somewhere in the South, all of sudden, hundreds of thousands of birds. All of the flooding, earthquakes, Mother Nature.

AM: How did you select the titles?

AP: I wanted the titles for the scenes to feel kind of clinical. Just like a reporter would do. So no emotional attachment to anything that was happening. Erin [Erin Thompson, Alex’s studio manager] helped me. We had a map of Los Angeles out, we’d pick different times, looking at the photos, what the sun was doing at the time. Just made it all up.

AM: How did you determine the eyes would serve as a device in the series?

AP: I wanted to do a side series [related to Compulsion]...trying to figure out how much emotion I could capture in body parts, close-ups of body parts...so I started shooting eyes and hands and ears, seeing how expressive they could become...I don’t remember exactly how I ended up putting [the disaster scenes and eyes] together as diptychs, but I knew my scenes were missing something on purpose [that] the eyes kind of gave them, which was the emotional aspect of a human being. I thought that was important for this particular series. I wanted that to be part of the conversation in what I was doing with those scenes, otherwise it felt too detached for me, which isn’t how I felt about the situations that [Compulsion] was inspired by.

AM: And the eyes remind you that you’re an onlooker and that you have no information about what’s happening...

AP: Which is a lot of times how I felt when I’d be reading the news, about these situations and scenes that were being shown to me in photographs, really well shot photographs of real life tragedies, and most of the time I’d just be glancing at it and I’d see the headline, where it happened or when. It did feel kind of detached in that way, where I did feel like I was a spectator looking at this scene that I wasn’t actually at.

AM: Has it ever happened that you’ve been driving in Los Angeles and you’ve seen something and just kept driving?

AP: While I was shooting this, actually at the very beginning, before I even shot anything and I was still coming up with ideas, I was on the 105, I think, and I was going to pick someone up at the airport and there was a huge white van completely on fire. I drove right past it. There were people standing there, kind of in shock, but it looked like a perfect photograph. But it was actually happening and I drove right by it. Of course I thought, ‘should I stop and help these people’? But I didn’t, because of course the next thought was, ‘what if the van blows up’? This is really not a good situation. But I think everyone has those moments…

AM: Where did the idea for your newest film, La Petite Mort, come from?

AP: It was random. I saw one picture. I think it was the Enrique Metinides picture of the guy drowning and the reflection of all of the people looking at the guy. I thought it would be cool, since I’ve seen a lot of Jean Cocteau movies, if that guy was coming out of the water but in the Jean Cocteau reverse kind of way.

AM: In La Petite Mort, like your previous film Despair, the subject is a woman who stands out or appears singled out. I’m curious about the aspect of being singled out, or misunderstood, or lost. Is that aspect something you’re exploring in your work?

AP: That’s what I am exploring, because it’s me. That’s what I’m interested in. It’s one story, one person’s life. The fact that it’s a woman makes it complicated and beautiful. There are a lot of different things that go along with following one woman’s tragic life.

AM: How much of yourself do you put into the work?

AP: All of myself. I’m exhausted afterwards. But I have every range of emotion. I’ve been close to death many times…I’m just trying to show the whole range of what that one woman might be going through at that moment. I’ve felt all kinds of different ways, so I can put what I’ve felt into that to some degree.

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