Alex Prager is not especially intimidating. The Los Angeles-based photographer is often smiling, rather petite and generally endearing. So it’s amusing to envision her atop a cherry picker, directing hundreds of actors like some sort of omniscient being, which is precisely what she did for her latest body of work, Face in the Crowd. Shot over four days on a sound stage in LA, the project features a slew of universally relatable locations (bleachers at a sports game, the beach, an airport, a generic looking rec room) populated with Prager’s friends, family and countless extras styled in flamboyant wigs and exaggerated makeup.
To coincide with the still images, there’s a short film starring the actress Elizabeth Banks. The artist’s most ambitious series to date (the beach scene alone took 20 tons of sand contained within a monstrous sandbox), its public opening reception is tonight from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at both Lehmann Maupin’s Chelsea and Chrystie Street locations (the film and some prints are in Chelsea and other prints are in the Lower East Side).
Though the cinematic quality of the images – a characteristic inherent in Prager’s entire body of work – harkens to Los Angeles, the use of crowds reads very NYC. New York is also exemplified in the sense of alienation evident in many of the individuals featured, despite being surrounded by other people. We sat down with Prager at Lehmann Maupin’s Chelsea outpost to discuss the exhibition.I sketch everything out beforehand. I’ll pull things from the Internet and do collages of old photographs just to make sure that it is really what I want to shoot. So everything looks very similar to what I intended it to look like, but the characters are something I can never totally imagine until we’re on set. We put the blush, the fake eyebrows and the mustaches on the men and for the women we paint their eyebrows and put the wigs on and everyone transforms into these characters. That part of it is always surprising – the way it feels on set and the energy people bring.
I love New York. I spent a few stints trying to live here, where I was looking for an apartment and never ended up getting one. I was going from hotel to Air BnB to hotel and extending trips for months at a time, so I’ve always had this love/hate relationship with New York on a personal level, but I don’t feel like I was trying to recreate crowds from New York. The crowds were supposed to exist in a generic city. That city could easily be New York, but they’re definitely not about New York. It’s an imaginary land.
Often that person you focus in on represents something I’ve experienced or something I’ve felt or imagined while in a crowd. My emotions are heightened when I’m in a crowd, so it was easy for me to pick out a girl around my age that I’d want to look like — if I wore wigs and lots of makeup — and pretend that’s how I’ve felt in that type of crowd at one point in my life. It’s not totally contrived, like, “This is the girl that I’m going to be,” but I’m using friends and my sister — who’s in all the photos…
Yes! She’s the Waldo. [points to beach scene] She’s here, with her boyfriend. My sister and I have such a strong bond. She’s five years younger and an artist as well. She’s a really strong influence for me, as a person as well as an artist, so having that deeply connected person floating around changed the crowds for me when I was shooting.
It’s the same. The second I’m shooting I feel like I’m looking at a prop or a doll that I can dress however I want and put into any position. The dolls come with their own unexpected and spontaneous energy but the way I can direct them and influence them is the same way I can move this glass of water [moves glass of water]. I always say I lose my sense of gender when I’m shooting and become this working energy force. I have to be careful about it sometimes. I’ll be moving someone’s hair and hurting them because I forget it’s a real person.
That’s what people have been saying, which is a huge compliment. I was looking for someone all-American and familiar. I wanted her to not be intimidating but to still be really beautiful. I wanted her to be a glamorous working girl.
I always wish I could go up to strangers on the subway and ask about their lives, which is precisely what you did in this film. Do you now find yourself thinking about people’s individual back stories when you’re riding the subway?
I was always thinking about that. Sometimes I notice details and daydream about where a person is going or the hairstyle they’ve probably been wearing for the past four years. But there are other times that I just want to get through the crowd as fast as possible — like, “Fuck everyone, I need to get out of this airport terminal.”
“Face in the Crowd” at Lehmann Maupin, 540 W. 26th St. and 201 Chrystie St. through Feb. 22.