The Folly of the ‘New’: A Visual Criticism of Alex Prager

This was a series of photographs that I worked on for my Digital Photography class in my first year. The assignment was to introduce 5 objects from any found or self-taken photographs into a setting to create a believable (though possibly surreal) image. Basically it was testing us on our abilities to manipulate the images by merging them, adding shadows/highlights, etc.

At the time, I was obsessed with how there was so much hype surrounding a self-taught photographer named Alex Prager, who is lauded for her combination of influences from cinematic melodrama and fashion photography. Websites call her “great”, “amazing”, “epic”, and “original”. She was even featured in a show at the MoMA entitled New Photography 2010. I found that ironic considering I saw clear similarities between her work and that of two famous “older” photographers, William Eggleston (colour palette) and Cindy Sherman (use of female figures in filmic situations). In a discussion with my art history professor and some classmates, we also saw similarities between her work and that of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall. At times, these similarities extended to outright copying of certain tones, compositions, and concepts.

Yet, the few descriptions of her work that I could find, including the one on the MoMA website in relation to the show, fail to acknowledge these relationships between their photographs. At most, there was one interview with her that mentioned how William Eggleston had inspired her to be a photographer. This article on the Huffington Post tries to argue for the differences between her work and Cindy Sherman’s, but yet ends up revealing the weakness of her argument through her own side-by-side comparisons. I know that there’s no such thing as originality, but when you’re not even recognising clear links between artists’ works, there is something inherently wrong with that – as if you’re trying not to mention it so that people will not suspect anything. She is not that bad a photographer – in fact, I actually enjoy looking at some of her more fashion-oriented works – she is just not as “original” and “amazing” as people think she is.

Instead of creating an image with 5 additional objects in them, I negotiated to do a series of 5 photographs made up of two photos – one of Alex Prager’s photographs, and one of either William Eggleston’s or Cindy Sherman’s (my professor even gave me a high-five when I declared that I hate Prager’s work). This series aims to expose how much she heavily relies on their works to elevate her own, and more so, the way the art world can be so intentionally blind sometimes.

Left: Eggleston; Right: Prager.

The huge puddle in the middle of dirt/debris with similar bluish-black tones was a perfect fit. I was going to include her shoes and bag but it was too difficult for me to get the right shadows.

Left: Eggleston; Right: Prager.

Both photographs used similar motifs of semi-abandoned cars. I just had to resize the woman to make her look believable in the Eggleston.

Left: Prager; Right: Eggleston.

This was the most obvious act of "plagiarism" to me. I actually read about it in a comment somewhere on the Internet. The original Eggleston may not have had the entire female figure in it, but the reddish-orange tones of her drink and the position of the plane window with the sunlight coming in seem to be too much of a coincidence. You can tell that I had some problems with the hair, but I'm quite proud of how I managed to remove the hand and rebuild the image underneath.

Left: Sherman; Right: Prager.

This one was more about concept than composition. The lonely girl standing along a highway in the middle of nowhere, waiting for something that may or may not be sinister. I simply introduced the bag and the truck from the Prager into the Sherman.

Left: Prager; Right: Sherman.

Again, I had some problems with the hair. But the bottom-up shooting style with the anxious yet somewhat vacant female figure required only some resizing and reshadowing after replacement.

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6 comments

  1. really love that you decided to do 5 works of 2 combined photos instead of ONE!

    • Berny

      it was easier in some senses – less things to try to make sense altogether. although i chose very challenging source photos because i could only use specific ones.

  2. Kim

    I hardly think the art world is blind. I am very educated on the works of all of the photographer’s you have mentioned and I saw their influence on Prager’s work. I don’t however think this is a negative thing. Yes she has heavy influence but so did Sherman, Wall and Crewdson in some of their work. More importantly, influence and image appropriation should not solely degrade an image. I see all of the appropriation in Prager’s work but I also see a strong voice all her own in her images and thats whats interesting. This whole idea of image originality is so tired. We live in a post modern world remember?

    • I do agree that Sherman, Wall and Crewdson drew heavily from classic film aesthetics as well as other photographers, and I also mentioned that I do like some of Prager’s work, particularly those that are more overtly fashion-oriented (that seems to be her strength). She does have excellent colour sense (although it’s easier to cultivate that using digital techniques). But I am not arguing for “image originality” here – I’m all for appropriation that is used wittily and skillfully – I’m simply pointing out that I have noticed quite a few of Prager’s works copy almost too directly for it to be either coincidental or referential, and I can find no articles among the few I have read that state that she intended to do that or that it’s part of her concept/style.

      I should note that this was a school project that I did to vent my frustration, and I am not claiming to make any grand statement, nor am I treating this as a full-fledged, developed artwork. It just happened to be something I was annoyed about at the time and the assignment seemed to be the perfect opportunity for catharsis.

      There are definitely grey areas here to be explored more in depth, such as the line between appropriation/copying, is it okay to appropriate if you did not specifically intend to do so, etc. I don’t think the fact that we live in a post-modern world means we should not still be struggling with certain issues, although it can definitely be done in a more elegant way than I have done here. I think Post-Modernism should not be an excuse for pluralism to the point of plagiarism (of course what is considered plagiarism is very arguable). In fact, it makes it even more pressing for us to be sensitive to all these issues, and even if we can’t draw the line between, for example, appropriation and plagiarism, we should be aware of its existence.

  3. Zixin

    Lol I hardly think name-dropping Post-Modernism and the problem of originality in art is relevant here – Originality is a debate and concern that’s been discussed to death and that’s not the point of the post. The point is whether Alex Prager has successfully tread the line between being ‘influenced’ and being lazy (for lack of a better word). Perhaps you should also strive to be a bit more ‘educated’ in art theory and philosophy rather than only ‘the works of all the photographer’s (sic)’.

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