Alex Prager
Photo by Jeff Vespa (2021)

Alex Prager: “The idea is more important than anything”

Short Profile

Name: Alex Prager
DOB: 1979
Place of birth: Los Angeles, California, United States
Occupation: Photographer, filmmaker

Alex Prager's new exhibition Part Two: Run is on display at Lehmann Maupin New York until 4 March 2023.

Ms. Prager, how do you know when an idea for a photography story is the right one?

I think it's when I have to make it, when I want to make it now because I'm impatient, or I want to make it because it has very much to do with something that I personally want answers to. I love when an idea just keeps coming back into my head, to the point where I can't ignore it any longer. And then I become almost ferocious and primal about the fact that I must make it and I want to make it now! I don't really think too analytically about why I must make it, it's more just I know I must make it and I know that I can I trust myself and trust that it's a very important reason.

It must be powerful to have that sense of urgency in what you’re doing, when often the idea can be what artists agonize over.

Yeah, I feel this way especially about ideas that I feel we collectively need.  Recently I released The Mountain, which is the first part of my project, and then Part Two:Run, also includes a film and some sculpture work. It kind of addresses the state of the world, and as small of a dent as it might make on that, if there's any dents at all, then it needs to be in the world, you know? That's how I felt. If I can contribute in any way, even if I can just get a chuckle out of someone in such crazy bleak times that we've experienced in the last few years, then it means that I've struck some kind of chord that's true. And that makes me happy. That's why I do this. It was cathartic.

“One thing that all artists who are making work and putting it out into the world have in common is their courage.”

You came up with the idea for Part Two: Run when you were listening to a song of the same name with your son, right?

Yeah, I was driving my kid to school! My husband was working with this woman, Ellen Reid; he was a real big fan of her work, so I put her album on to see what kind of music she made. When I put this music on, it felt very fated, because I was already looking for a way to understand what I was feeling — “Run” came on and Francis and I were just very shocked by it. It was exactly what I was feeling on so many levels. Francis asked me to play it on repeat every day for the next week. He asked me to describe what was happening in the song, so I would make him a kind of imaginary picture to go with the song, like a movie. And every day, I would tell him a little bit more of who was running, what they were running from. By the time I actually made the film, I already had the story totally mapped out.

How is it for you to come on set and finally get to see your ideas coming to fruition?

Well, for Run, the concept is this massive silver ball propelling itself through a community. I trusted this idea so much, but I really felt like it was a risk at the same time, probably more so than any other piece. It needed to feel emotional, but it was also very slapstick and absurd. It was really a challenging balance to get that important emotional resonance without having it be bulldozed over by the comedy. And I think using people in my work, that’s the easiest way to get the emotion across. When we get on set, I'll give them a character and specific things to do. I usually talk with people ahead of time about why I'm making a certain body of work and what I'm trying to get across so that everyone can bring their own experiential and emotional states to the characters that they're playing. I always love that.

Apparently when you start to feel a bit nervous before you arrive on set, that’s how you know you’re on the right path.

The more I dive into that, the more I realize a lot of artists feel a similar way. It's part of the process and maybe it's a good thing, that kind of adrenaline… But honestly, nervous is probably an understatement for me. I can be terrified, to the point where it’s almost crippling! But you know, one thing that all artists who are making work and putting it out into the world have in common is their courage. It takes so much courage to feel all those crippling, almost physically debilitating emotions, and still just be like, “Alright, I'm gonna pick myself up, and I'm gonna go to the set. And I'm gonna to call action!” And in the end, nobody cares if you're nervous or not, only you do. So just make everyone believe that you're in control, that you feel good, that you feel confident and you're not nervous at all. And things will go that way.

Fake it ‘til you make it…

Exactly, I think we're all doing that all the time! We're putting on a new costume each day. We do kind of go through life in that way. It is a decision that we're making. I read this Joseph Campbell quote recently that says, “Life is joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.” And that really resonated with me! That word participation struck a nerve. We do decide to participate in life. Getting out of bed, getting dressed, going outside, no matter how sorrowful or scared we are… It's that act of participation. It's an undeniable decision that we're making each day to participate. And I love that.

How else has that undeniable decision making impacted you as an artist?

Well, really early on, I had this epiphany when I was working at my office job in a cubicle, and all of a sudden, I just saw exactly where I was. I looked at my life, and I kind of fast forwarded in my mind and I realized that that was my life forever — unless I changed it. From that point on, I've just had this idea of life as a choice. It's a decision each day. I've always had this idea that I get to choose: absurd, ridiculous, depressing or powerful, whatever my life is in that moment… I can choose. If you think about it that way, it's actually quite fun. Sure, bad things can happen that we can't control. But we still choose to participate if we're still here. And you win sometimes, too.

I guess that mindset also helps push you to take big risks with your work.

Yeah, exactly. I've always kind of been that way. Once I commit to an idea, then I just move forward with it, no matter what. And that's always how I've operated when it comes to my art. I'm kind of tenacious in that way, even if it takes a lifetime, eventually I will make that thing.

You’ve never had to give up on an idea?

I mean, the thing is that I've never been “cool” because I'm always too persistent! I care too much, so much that I don't care about looking cool. I will keep persisting with an idea over and over. If someone says no to me 50 times, I'll just ask them 51 times. The idea is more important than anything.