Can a photograph be trusted anymore? Until the age of Photoshop and other digital tools, a photograph’s draw lay in its ability to reflect realism—to capture and share a moment in life exactly as it happened. This was a general consensus until artists first began to alter photographs using physical and chemical means during the development of their film. Now, elaborate setups and virtual means allow these images to be doctored to elicit whatever thoughts and emotions they desire.
Alex Prager’s Compulsion, on display in the Foam Museum of Photography, is a collection of photographs that skirts the line between fiction and fantasy. Although they depict staged narratives, there is something intimately real and familiar about each one of her works. Each narrative is a set of two images: one is the scene, rendered in bright and artificially saturated colors—a bombardment of striking yellows, red accents, and cloudless cerulean skies. These subjects have their own individual mystery and drama: examples include a young girl hanging precariously from a electrical pylon, a house engulfed in flames, and alarmed-looking commuters fully clothed in canal waters, as if just thrown out from a moving train.
With each of these, however, is an accompanying close-up photo of an eye, a scrutinizing fixed gaze which serves not only to direct the viewer’s own eye but adds a source of movement and choreography to the actions of the subjects. The fact that these piercing eyes disturb the viewer speaks to the familiar but somewhat askew nature of the photographs—one wonders whether they have seen similar photographs or locations before, and the furrowed brows on some of the accompanying eye images is confounding.
A further inspection of a small commentary piece by Jorg Colberg reveals this: while some stylistic effects of the photographs take clear inspiration from the sparse but exaggerated colors of theater backdrops or the general visual lushness of Hollywood cinema, the slight nostalgia of the photographs can possibly be explained by our distant memories of real events. For example, in reference to the photograph of the girl on the pylon, Prager takes inspiration from Mexican photographer Enrique Metinides, who previously had taken a similar image of a real, electrocuted Metro worker hanging at the top of an electricity pole. Likewise, many of her other photographs contain similar subtle references to other historical events. But while we as viewers may not have seen the original photographs, Prager still is able to instill a sense of familiarity by referencing events we might nonetheless identify with on a deep, emotional level.
Thus, is Compulsion’s goal simply to play with our emotions and the impressionable quality of our memories? Although plausible, I think not. Rather, Prager’s accompaniment of eye photographs transform the pieces back on the viewer and inspire a reflection of ourselves: to take a second look—not at the artworks but our own reactions to what we see, whether we project our own emotions and current mood on the photographs to give us each a different viewing experience.
By blurring the line of what we perceive to be real or familiar, Prager’s work separates itself from typical digitally altered artwork—rather than building on juxtaposition or even playfulness made so easy by digitization, it builds on formality but adds a minimal touch; just enough to trigger a distant emotion. Her edits and staging are not tools of deception but a vehicle of false but convincing familiarity.