Alex Prager never meant to be a photographer. The LA-based 32-year-old initially pursued a career in acting but, having fortuitously stumbled across William Eggleston's photographs at California's Getty Museum, decided to take pictures instead. Eggleston has remained one of Prager's foremost influences (you see it as much in her use of colour as the fact her subjects seem permanently stuck in 1960s suburban America) but it's the morbidly alluring documentary of Weegee and Enrique Metinides that more directly inspire the self-taught artist's latest high-impact series.
Prompted by tragedies depicted in the mainstream media, Compulsion investigates our collective tendency to observe disaster rather than react to it, and features the photographer's characteristic touches – highly-staged, melodramatic images heavy with suggested catastrophe – alongside evocative close-ups of investigative eyes. There's burning houses, free-falling (although impeccably dressed) women and interstate car accidents, all infused with a saccharine glow, all witnessed by large-scale eyes apparently happy to watch.
Prager is simultaneously presenting a new short, La Petite Mort – a typically surreal, sweetly colourful six-minute contemplation on the moment of death. Whereas her previous film efforts evoke the sense of moving stills – as if the images are alive only in one very specific moment – La Petite Mort represents the artist's first attempt at traditional cinema, and is driven by an ambition to explore what for her is still a relatively new medium. We gave her a call earlier this week to talk about it.
Your new show features two components – a series of photographs and a short film. Could you explain the different parts, and how they're linked?
Compulsion is a series of new photographs, and La Petite Mort is a new film. I made them simultaneously so they both deal with the same themes – things like tragedy and despair and death – but they're not directly linked. They're two separate works being shown at the same time. The new work comes from stories I'd been hearing in the news – articles about natural disasters, tragedies, horrible things happening in the world. I didn't quite understand how I could help or what I could do. I felt horrified and devastated by it, and yet deeply connected to it. We often read about these things happening and then we carry on with our day. None of us are really doing anything about it. I asked, "What is the world coming to?" And that's when I started making these pictures.
They're your reaction to the tragedies you came across?
They're a way for me to deal with what I was reading – to make it a little bit easier – but also a way to realise that this sort of thing has been going on for centuries. This is the world we live in – it's a beautiful and ugly and good and very bad place. La Petite Morte is me exploring one really intense emotion. It's about the idea of death, or, at least, what it might feel like to die. It describes the moments immediately before and after the event, in a beautiful, kind of surreal way.
That's where the name comes from?
Yeah, "La Petite Mort" translated directly means "the little death", but it's also the words the French use to describe the orgasm. They feel it's the one moment while living when you're closest to death because all of your senses have been shut off, bar one. Obviously that's a very dramatic and poetic way to talk about it, but I really liked it, and thought it could apply to feelings that I've had before – not about death necessarily, but those I've had when focussed on something really intense, that feels so overwhelming.
Where did the story come from?
The story is completely made up, but certain things are definitely taken from experiences I've had, or things I've come across, or emotions I've felt before that I didn't really know how to express at the time. It definitely relates to the drama of being a woman – thankfully I'm now able to express those emotions through my work rather than in real life! It's the first film I've done that shows an understanding of the traditional medium, that's been approached in a more classical sense. Compulsion was a combination of me desperately wanting to do something different to what people knew me to do, and just being bored with what I'd been doing up until that point. I felt as if I'd come to the end of that journey, that I'd got all I could out of it for the moment. So instead I tried to do something completely different, and challenging. Of course that process is time-consuming and expensive, but it's the only way to do it I think.
There are very few people featured in Compulsion – normally your pictures are people-focussed
Right, but you still feel the presence of someone being there. There's a human feeling to the pictures, but the viewer doesn't feel connected to anyone in particular. I wanted the series to seem like the news articles I was reading. I didn't want it to feel like you knew the people involved. The eyes represent the emotional response. The main idea behind the title of the series was to show the spectator's compulsion to watch disaster, rather than act. We can't look away when there's an accident on the side of the freeway – everyone slows down and looks – but nobody helps. And we can all relate to that. Alex Prager, "Compulsion is at Michael Hoppen Contemporary until May 26. Click through our gallery above to see pictures from the series.