Last year artist Alex Prager went up the Santa Monica Mountains in a state of contemplation. History was on her side: countless artists had retreated there to nature in search of cosmic purpose or self-actualization and returned with a good story. And by then, it was almost two years into a pandemic spread partially by touch, so it couldn’t be any lonelier at the top.
Over two decades, in the course of several bodies of photography, the Los Angeles–based artist has established a signature aesthetic: meticulously constructed tableaux; rushing crowds in blown-out colors; and women whose subtle anachronisms of style suggest they’ve dropped out of time. A slim figure is sometimes singled out, adrift in melodrama.
For her latest project, she forewent the excess, but kept the sense of uncanny. Dreamy characters, like a cowboy and cherub, star in stripped-down portraits atop the mountain. Feelings wheel from exuberance to anguish. The cowboy falls to his knees before a brilliant blue sky with a shout, and the angel, clad only in white socks and earrings, springs into the air. Everyone is alone and in emotional and literal freefall—a sharply-dressed woman drops from the sky in one frame.
Titled “Part One: The Mountain,” the show is now on view in her first London outing at Lehmann Maupin (through March 5). The second part is a forthcoming film inspired by the portraits. Below, the artist discusses her return to portraiture.
Tell me about the start of the project.
This is the first time I was interested in going back to photography in such a straightforward way, as I haven’t used portraiture since early in my career. In recent years I’ve been so entrenched in creating films, or writing screenplays. The idea of going backwards to where I started felt really confusing, but the desire wouldn’t go away. It’s the best way to examine the individual, to really get a greater understanding of one another. So I returned to two important portrait works, Small Trades [by Irving Penn], and August Sanders’, Citizens of the 20th century. I was already drawn to this idea of a communal experience, and those two really lit a fire in me.
Can you expand on what the mountain meant to you?
I felt so much of an affinity to this mountain, I couldn’t get the idea of reaching its top out of my head. The mountain itself is such a charged image, with so many different meanings, both historically and symbolically. In Greek mythology, there’s an archetype of reaching the summit of a mountain to realize a wild, Dionysiac self. And it makes sense: it’s where you’re closest to god. You’re overlooking your whole life from that peak. It felt like the right location for this story.
I’ve felt an intense separation—I’m sure you’ve felt it too—from our family and friends. People are very disconnected—they’ve been physically out of touch. There’s been a lot of different ideas about how to move forward and less understanding of each other. Honestly, I was trying to understand people again through this. That’s what portraiture really does: focus on the individuals. They connect us to ideas about ourselves.
Sure, everyone has been so suppressed. The release is cathartic.
What happens to all those emotions when they’re suppressed? We have to go to a mountain and scream as loud as we can. I actually did that, though I didn’t realize until I’d gotten there how scary or lonely it would be. There really isn’t much development in the Santa Monica mountain range. I took my four-year-old son on a hike the other day, and suddenly we walked into this spot where the mountains had cast an incredible shade. We felt the air drop 15 degrees and I realized how vulnerable we were to the elements or to animals, mountain lions, snakes, anything. But it was a good experience. There’s a core part of me that needed to seek it out. For me, there was an urge to depict a spiritual awakening, which sounds intense, but we’re in an intense time. I wanted to explore something and land on the other side. It was a positive outcome, to be sure.
Who are these characters? What’s their story?
I started with characters I’ve always been drawn toward, but this time I wanted them to be symbolic. I think about Small Trades, which was an epic body of work, and I can’t begin to say the mountain is anywhere near that but it is inspired by the same idea of democratizing people. I’d like to put us on one understandable flat plane.
I always use a mix of family, friends, stuntmen, and people I find on the street. I get to know them all personally. Here, I worked with Arianne Phillips, a costume designer, to put together outfits that felt timeless. I didn’t want them to totally feel like they’d been plucked from the distant past—more like they belonged in a recent memory. Something I’ve learned from being so detailed, having an almost annoying amount of control, is that the more detailed I am, the more universal the image will seem.
Usually I do a show every two years, and I first thought that for this work I would drive around the United States taking portraits. We started pre-production with that concept—it’s even something I did early in my career with America Hotel. But it didn’t feel right. We’d gone through two years of hell, it was so intense, and I was intensely full of inner turmoil. Once I started to understand that, everything came together very quickly. But it’s definitely not finished. I have a long way to go.