Last week the artist Alex Prager swept through the fashion week tents in Berlin, flown out from Los Angeles by Mercedes-Benz for a three-day whirlwind press tour. Accompanied by her sister, whom the photographer prominently featured in her 2010 series “Week-End,” Prager offered a refreshingly unscripted take on working commercial commissions as an art photographer — before speeding back to L.A. to finish work on a still-secret exhibition in April that will span L.A., New York, and London. Speaking with ARTINFO Germany’s Alexander Forbes, Prager discussed the problems with childlike models, her photography’s postmodern pastiche, and the pleasure of sucking Lara Stone into a tornado.
You don’t work generally work with models. How it was working with a supermodel like Lara Stone?
Lara is not a typical model; she has a very curvy figure. She looks more like a real woman I think than most, than a lot of models that I see out there that seem to be like little girls or little boys that are girls.
So does that kind of infantilization effect the emotion that you go for in your photographs?
With the other models, yeah, I think it’s a little bit harder. It’s not even necessarily the body type so much as its very hard to pull a story of a woman from them when they look like that and maybe the emotional aspect isn’t quite there all the time with models. I prefer working with actresses or just friends or people that have nothing to do with it. Actually my sister is in a lot of my photos. But working with Lara, she seemed to be able to really give the emotional aspects that I’m looking for much more than other models that I’ve worked with. She definitely seemed more on the actress side of things.
All of your photographs have this kind of very filmic quality to them. Why do you go for that kind of narrativity within the images?
I think the most important thing about what I’m trying to do is capture that emotion because I think people can connect directly with emotion in any kind of art medium, that’s what you are going for because that’s what people are going to connect with. If it’s just a surface aesthetic thing then I think it’s a lot harder, no matter how pretty the colors are, for people to connect with it on a personal level because the emotion isn’t there and it can’t spark anything from their own experiences.
For this particular image you mentioned films like “James Bond,” “Marry Poppins,” and “The Wizard of Oz” as some of the main influences.
[Laughs] I was just throwing out names. I wanted to just play around with the idea of throwing Lara into a tornado. Originally, I thought it would be fun to also lift the car up with her and have them spinning around in a tornado but Mercedes didn’t want to go that far.
I guess they don’t want to wreck the prototype.
Yeah. So I settled for just Lara and she was down with it and then it just reminded me of the whole "Mary Poppins" thing. I love those old movies, those old children’s movies. They were so well done.
So the tornado just came to you randomly?
Yeah, they told me Lara Stone, Mercedes-Benz, and I thought tornado. I don’t know why. Let’s not try and read into it.
And what about working commercially? Do you delineate between your artistic work and the commercial shoots?
Yeah, I used to try and pretend that there wasn’t a line there, but the more I do this the more I realize there is a line there because it is different. With my art, it’s just me and nobody sees or hears about anything until I think it’s finished. With the commissions or collaborations or what ever you want to call this, they have certain things they’re trying to sell so you can’t really go too far into the darker emotions because I think they’re a little afraid of that for their marketing. You have to step with caution at times. But that is actually the reason that I don’t do so much commercial work because having too many restrictions just kind of defeats the point of what I’m here for.
Right, your photographs aren’t necessarily super risqué, but they’re not mainstream either.
Yeah, I’m not selling vanilla cake and ice cream here. But I’ve been lucky so far with my collaborations. Bottega Veneta, which I collaborated with a year or so ago, they gave me complete creative control, and Mercedes did the same thing. I think because I come from the art world people are a little bit more open to playing around with the creative stuff, which is cool.
People like to snap up that cool art-scene cachet.
Yeah, but it’s also good for me because it’s not very often that a company with this much history behind them and this much money would be so open to trying something a little bit scarier or different.
It’s not so present in this image, but a lot of your photographs have this weird '60s or early '80s vibe in them. Are those eras that are particularly relevant to you?
In my art photography, I’m trying to just be timeless and walk across all the eras that I love in terms of style, just kind of meld them into now. I think people, young people do that anyway. I used to drive a 1979 Mercedes in cherry red while wearing an outfit made in the '40s, while wearing shoes that were made in the '60s. That’s what we do. And L.A. has old bars and things from the '20s and the '80s. Our society is melded in a lot of different ways, so in a way I’m just taking modern, contemporary photographs; that’s how our world is. But in another way, sure, yes, I love retro things. I couldn’t really do so much of that with this [image] because we were working with Calvin Klein and of course the car is brand new, but I felt that the environment that I set up with the shoot had a retro quality to it, so I snuck it in.
Or the narrative in and of itself. It’s something that I pick up in a lot of your work: it’s just right on that line of being cliché that it becomes really interesting.
Well, yeah. A lot of my photos, I kind of think of them as movie stills from a B-rated movie from the '60s. I want people to have fun with the images to a certain degree, but hopefully can also read deeper into them, past the fun and the wink.