A strange picture of perfection
by Maggie Finch


Valley of the dolls

The filmic references in Prager’s works are particularly pronounced in images such as Eve and Kimberly of 2008, whose melodramatic scenes can be seen as direct homages to the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock. In Eve, for example, Hitchcock’s 1963 classic The Birds is immediately recalled upon seeing the panicked female swarmed by a flock of pigeons; and in Kimberly, planes on the tarmac bring to mind the dramatic airplane chase scene in North by Northwest (1959). The women in Prager’s images are also cast as archetypal ‘blondes’ – again calling to mind the aesthetic of Hitchcock’s leading ladies, such as Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint.

Eve, 2008
Eve 2008
type C photograph
91.4 × 114.3 cm
Collection of the artist, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Hong Kong

These seductive photographs form part of Prager’s series The Big Valley, 2008. Referencing the San Fernando Valley in the north/west border of Los Angeles, home to many of Hollywood’s major movie studios and renowned as a place of excesses, the title was also selected, Prager explains, for the dark evocations raised by the definition of the word ‘valley’ as ‘any place, period, or situation that is filled with fear, gloom, foreboding or the like’.1

Despite their visual connections to postwar cinema, Prager insists that her photographs are not period pieces. Rather, their familiar aesthetic is used as a filter allowing reflection on contemporary concerns, or, as Kaitlin Booher has written, the images act as a reminder of ‘how the real world as we see it is often filtered through Hollywood’s scrim of surreality’.2

I'm not trying for my photographs to look like they're from a certain time … I see my pictures as being completely modern, but modern for me has a ton of influence from the past. I was raised on thrift stores. The makeup and wigs are things that I added to the photos to give them more of a staged look. Almost like the girls are re-enacting scenes from melodramas and soap operas. The artificial look sets the girls in the photos apart from real life.3

Kimberly, 2008
Kimberly 2008
type C photograph
121.9 x 162.6 cm
Collection of the artist, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Hong Kong

Prager has elaborated further on this use of a 'filmic language' as a simultaneously personal and collective way of thinking about contemporary lifestyle, artifice and representation of women in her hometown of Los Angeles. She acknowledges, for example, that she often uses friends and family members (particularly her sister, the artist Vanessa Prager) as actors in her scenes. Employing this personal aspect is a way for Prager to unsettle readings of her images as referencing one particular time, place or look. As she has said:

When I started photography, I practiced by dressing my friends up and taking pictures of them. It was always more fun to do this with my girlfriends because I could dress them in my clothes, and use them like dolls in the pictures. I could do more with them using what I had on hand. Gradually, the use of girls in my pictures became more important because the stories I tell are usually coming from some part of my life, so the person in the picture telling that story needs to be a woman. Being based in Los Angeles, I definitely see a darker side of femininity than I see in other places I've been.4