Last week, photographer Alex Prager’s current exhibition Compulsion touched down at FOAM Photography Museum in Amsterdam, where Prager has been awarded the prestigious Paul Huf Award for her heightened cinematic images. Marrying the surreal with the sublime, Prager’s Compulsion sets up a series of apocalyptic scenes with visible artifice, creating a narrative that could have been lifted from a B movie–a Hitchcock blonde hanging by the skirt of her dress from a smoking car flying through the air, a group of passengers apparently thrown from a plane floating in the sea, a woman suspended by a pylon high in the sky, and so on. The giant diptychs are displayed alongside close-ups of human eyes, looking. Prager explains it is our “compulsion to watch” that informs the series, hinting at the media’s tendency to transform tragedy into spectacle and exploiting our willingness to participate. We managed to pin down Prager for a brief chat before the exhibition’s opening at FOAM on Friday.
Unlike previous series, the protagonists in Compulsion remain anonymous and distant. How did you set to casting this project?
I usually go through my phone book first, then Facebook, and sometimes I’ll ask my friends to ask their parents. If I need a crowd or more variety, I’ll go through a casting company.
LA is as big a character in the series as any of the protagonists and is a constant presence in your work. Would you ever live anywhere else?
Yes! As much as I love LA, I’m always fantasizing about living other places. I’ve lived in London and New York but just like that ‘Hotel California’ song—there’s something about LA that always draws me back.
You’ve cited the crime scene photographer Enrique Metinides as a reference point for Compulsion. What attracted you to his images?
They’re very cinematic. I’ve always been a big fan of Weegee so when I discovered Metinides, I felt like I’d discovered the Mexican Weegee! They both shoot in a way that adds an aspect to the crime scene photo that’s much more than a cold, gory documentation. There’s drama and beauty, the same way a Hollywood film might show you a crime scene, only their pictures are the real thing.
You are known for your cinematic aesthetic and I definitely glimpsed David Lynch and Wim Wenders in your latest pieces. Have you ever studied film? Who are your favourite filmmakers?
I never studied film but I used to watch the old film channels late at night when I was in my early twenties. Often, I would start in the middle of the film, so I’m not as well versed with director and actor names as I should be. There were certain films and directors that had a huge impact on me artistically though, such as The Red Shoes, The Wizard of Oz, The Night of the Hunter, Maya Deren, Fellini, Hitchcock, Godard, Cocteau…
What’s the story behind La Petite Mort, the film that accompanies the exhibition?
I wanted to explore the relationship between love and death and those few moments right before, during, and after death. ‘La petite mort’ is the French term for orgasm, which translates to ‘the little death.’ They call it that because they feel that it’s the one time in life when you’re closest to death because all your senses shut off except one, and that one sense is intensified to its fullest.
I’ve read that you write screenplays with a soundtrack in mind. What was playing while you were composing La Petite Mort?
Benjamin Britten! My friend took me to see the LA philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and some of the songs were by Britten. I was completely floored. I’d never heard anything like it before and at the time I had just finished writing the story for La Petite Mort. The over-the-top drama and intensity was a perfect match.
Would you ever consider making a feature film?
Yes! I really love all the different components that go into filmmaking. It never crossed my mind that I would ever be involved in film but I guess John Lennon is right, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”