Shortly after self-taught photographer Alex Prager exhibited her technicolor photographs at MoMA’s “New Photography 2010,” she discovered she harbored a common fear. Traveling extensively for engagements, she shuffled through airports and metro stations in unfamiliar cities, partaking in the pings and patterns of urban life. For many, crowds are routine banality, but for some, including Prager, they’re terrifying.
“Suddenly, I was traveling from airport to airport and becoming more of a public person,” Prager said. “It was jarring. Having to speak publicly and be in public, I realized I had huge anxiety that I didn’t know existed.”
Prager, 34, confronts that anxiety headfirst in “Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, opening Saturday. At first glance, the works seem like melodramatic images from Alfred Hitchcock films or spreads from fashion glossies. But a fuller examination of these seemingly retro moments — sometimes comprising 70 or more posed character actors on soundstages — reveals more ominous themes in her work. When her subjects are viewed individually, they have narratives and quirks, but when viewed in the totality of the frame, the viewer becomes a surveyor with a privileged vantage point, something only birds and cameras in the post- Sept. 11 surveillance state can see.
Prager’s images capture the duality of modern life: The anonymous crowds Ezra Pound celebrated no longer exist in a culture where mass shootings and Reddit sleuthing have become the norm. And while digitally, the crowd seems more connected than ever, her characters are detached. In postproduction, she reconstructs the images, removing interaction among the subjects, ensuring their individualism.
“As a culture right now, we’re not as connected as we seem,” she said. “We’re constantly tweeting and instagramming, and the media is always showing us exactly what’s happening when it’s happening, but it’s an illusion. Are we really so connected?”
Although contemporary, Prager’s work draws heavily on the past, echoing the costuming of Cindy Sherman and the scope of Weegee’s beach scenes. She draws from Douglas Sirk and William Eggleston, plucking her subjects from other eras, though not a uniform one. (The woman wearing the ’70s hairdo carries a magazine with Michelle Obama’s face on the cover, making the images retro and current simultaneously.)
That’s part of what drew curator Kaitlin Booher, assistant curator of photography at the Corcoran, to Prager’s work.
“There’s a lot of different levels and layers to what she’s doing,” Booher said. “She’s synthesizing so many influences and themes in American culture, in a style that is distinctly hers.”
With Prager, the Corcoran also found a commercial up-and-comer, as Prager has become something of a fashion industry darling. “Face in the Crowd” is co-sponsored by W Magazine, a product of Conde Nast, and the Italian fashion house Bottega Veneta, for which Prager has shot ad campaigns. The fashion industry-museum collaboration is becoming a familiar norm at a time when galleries are catering to style-literate young audiences and trying to increase ticket sales. The Corcoran certainly took this trend into account when choosing the exhibition.
But it’s a mistake to view “Face in the Crowd” as mere fashion photography or a retro romance. Her earlier works of beautiful Breck girls were more closely tied to fashion photography and would have been out of place in Washington. But her crowd scenes capture life as much of federal Washington sees it: from the vantage point of cameras watching our morning commutes.
One of the four short films in the exhibition characterizes the post-Snowden anxiety that follows from fear of surveillance. The protagonist, played by actress Elizabeth Banks, watches the crowd before joining its movement. She becomes panicked, evoking the expressions seen in “The Birds” or “Vertigo,” but there’s no clear pursuer or maniacal threat. The film poster is even more ominous, showing Banks staring up, her face circumscribed in a red circle. But the film ends without the expected climax. Life seems to continue as normal.
Prager’s struggles with anxiety are shrewdly replicated in these photos, but she doesn’t bombard us with fear. Instead she dresses her subjects in platinum wigs and strange mustaches, making themes of surveillance easier to stomach when viewing her work just steps from the White House lawn. After all, with such a beautiful and well-heeled cast of characters, how could anything be awry?
Through March 9 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St NW. Adults, $10. Children younger than 12, free. www.corcoran.org or 202-639-1700.