Alex Prager is wondering whether to wash her hair. The American photographer and filmmaker and Refinery29 are waiting for the lift as she explains the toll a month of London pollution has taken on her locks. Surrounding us, is the reason she’s been in town: Silver Lake Drive, a stunning new exhibition that celebrates a decade of Prager’s cinematic lens.
Painting an aesthetic rich in colour, nostalgic in tone, and which marries the film industry with the art world – think variations on David Lynch and Cindy Sherman – the show is anchored in Hollywood and comprises over 40 pieces from the artist’s hyperreal constructions: group shots like "Susie and Friends" from 2008’s The Big Valley series and individual portraits such as "Deborah" from Week-End (2010), as well as Prager’s recent collaboration with Opera Bastille, the short La Grande Sortie.
Post-hair damage and dodgy Uber driver chat, we asked Prager to indulge us in her practice.
How would you describe your relationship with Hollywood, prior to photography?
I grew up in Los Angeles but never wanted to be an actress; I had actor friends, friends that wanted to be directors – I was the artist. It felt very much a part of my world. Making these works I was always telling stories but I didn’t realise that I was. Storytelling in a linear way, like Hollywood does, came much later. I was [originally] telling them in a more impulsive, emotional way, but that’s what makes the stories interesting and effective.
When did you first consciously decide to bring Hollywood into your work?
I never necessarily, intentionally was thinking about bringing Hollywood into my work. My grandmother’s friend had a box of clothes that she had left over from when she was a starlet – this was the exact moment I was trying to figure out how to speak on many uncomfortable layers, different subjects, that weren’t necessarily easy – so I wanted to use those layers of beauty and Hollywood and the wigs, experimenting with layers of artifice.
And how did this elevate what you were doing?
The layers of artifice gave people the distance, a bit of space, from what they might otherwise find too uncomfortable. I found that a very interesting tool. If you look at film noir, they’re pretty dark, pretty fucked up: murder, affairs, the darkest stuff, but you’re telling these stories with layers of makeup and lighting and set design – it kind of tricks you into this world. Film in general is a form of trickery. When I would think about Hollywood, I would think about all of that.
Is it right you work with a script?
Depending on what I’m making, like if I’m making [this] photograph I wouldn’t necessarily use a script. Sometimes I just make up lines.
But always some direction. What’s the common response from your subjects?
People love to get into character. Not only are they curious about what it is to be in front of the camera, but people find it fun. The more I give them to make that character dramatic and theatrical and real, my experience is people really like being in these worlds. A lot of the models have actually cut and dyed their hair into the style of whatever wig I used, afterwards.
Amazing. So what’s the casting process?
It’s a mix from agencies in Los Angeles – professional actors – and my family and friends; people I see on the street. I like to have different dynamics, because it changes the atmosphere on set and makes it weirder. If it was all artifice, I don’t think it would resonate as well. Also the extras, some know each other from previous films, so there’s weird dramas going on; people show up with whatever personal drama they have going on in their own lives. Different things start occurring on set, it just creates a more tangible tension.
Is there a significant difference or do you have a preference, in terms of shooting individual portraits like "Deborah" or "Ellen" versus your group shots, such as those from Face in the Crowd?
It’s my preference just to shoot whatever image is in my mind, that is exciting me next. Once I’ve done something, I generally don’t want to do it again the same way.
You’ve said previously that your interest in female protagonists is about honesty.
I’m the audience first and foremost. If it resonates with me in a genuine way and makes me feel something, then out of all the people in the world it’s going to resonate with someone else – somebody else is going to have had a similar experience to me. If it doesn’t resonate with me then it’s not worth showing. Also, the reason I’m an artist to begin with is because I’m interested in figuring out these emotions and psychological states that I’m having trouble going through. The complications in my life, that’s what the work is.
There’s a book too. What has it meant to you, gathering and presenting your work in this form?
The book is exactly 10 years of work; we didn’t realise that until we had already started planning. People talk about 10 years, and just to see what that really means to me, as an artist, seeing how long it really takes to master a certain idea. It’s a pretty big deal, I’m excited about finally having a book to make my imagery and films accessible to the rest of the world.
Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive is on display at The Photographers’ Gallery, London until 14th Oct 2018. The monograph of the same name is available and published by Thames & Hudson (£40).