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Alex Prager: Finding Purpose in Photography

Artist and filmmaker Alex Prager is one of the most exciting photographers of her generation. On this episode, Dan speaks with the self-taught dynamo about how she got started, her new show, and her advice to anyone who’s ever thought about picking up a camera.

Photo: Jeff Vespa


Artist and filmmaker Alex Prager is one of the most exciting photographers of her generation. She creates dramatic and nostalgic works that embody the best of film and cinematic culture and that speak to universal themes of love, loss, fear, and transcendence. On this episode, Dan speaks with the self-taught dynamo about how she got started, her upcoming first feature film, her new show in Seoul, and her heartfelt advice to anyone who’s ever thought about picking up a camera. 

Listen to this episode


Alex Prager: It’s not really the medium of photography that I love, it’s more the creative process of taking what’s in my head and putting it into a medium. There’s something very romantic for me about putting people under these really hot lights, almost like you’re on a stage. There’s a separation between you and the outside world and putting people under those lights and they performed differently and they were able to tap into something inside themselves that was much more private than I think they would’ve if it was popping off strobes.

Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein, and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for more than 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life. Sometimes, people complain that the art world today has become too professionalized, that there are too many MFAs and PhDs, too many self-aware ultra-academics, too much lingo, but there are still many trailblazers in the art world that simply create out of a need too, and through their own personal journey, stumble upon a method, a technique, a look that people just can’t turn away from. My guest today is one of those trailblazers, artist and photographer, Alex Prager.

In her 2022 film called “Run,” starring film actress Katherine Waterston, a vaguely mid-century American town is terrorized by a giant reflective steel ball, like something you’d see out of a pinball machine. It rolls down an idyllic main street with period costumes and lots of obvious wigs, crushing and terrorizing anything that gets in its way. It’s part horror, part camp, and part comedy. The look is evenly lit with fully saturated colors like an old nuclear age bit of Kodak film brought to life.

This nostalgic look is consistent in her work, and after learning about her past, you might come to understand why. Prager was born in Los Angeles and had quite the unusual upbringing that would have her going back and forth between the West Coast and Switzerland during her teens. After searching for her own calling amongst a crowd of other creative youth, she stumbled upon photography after seeing a show at LA’s Getty Museum. After just a few years into her career, she created her first film in 2010, “Despair,” starring Bryce Dallas Howard. Its inclusion into the coveted new photography show at MoMA in New York that year set her on a path to success.

She won an Emmy in 2012. She’s had many shows at places like LACMA, the National Gallery of Victoria, Foam in Amsterdam, and many others. Her latest show, Western Mechanics, is currently on view at Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Seoul, South Korea until June 22nd. This month, Alex just started principal photography on her first feature Hollywood film, DreamQuil, starring Juliette Lewis, Elizabeth Banks, and John C. Reilly. I caught up with Alex from her studio in Los Angeles to talk about her unconventional youth, how cinema has inspired her incredibly creative career, the tensions between fine art and the film industry, and her advice for anyone looking to pick up a camera.


“Western Mechanics” (2024) by Alex Prager. Photo: Alex Prager, Courtesy Lehmann Maupin

So, in all of the bios that I’ve read of yours, they never failed to mention your upbringing in LA, and your parents moved to Florida. You hated it and then you live this life between bouncing between California, Florida and Switzerland, where you live with the family of a friend of yours for back and forth for quite some time. So, I’m curious, like when you think back to those days bouncing around at such a young age, so nationally and both internationally from your own point of view, especially the Swiss part, what was that like?

Wow, you got that memorized pretty well. That’s pretty good.

I do my homework.

I want to correct a couple things though.


I didn’t hate Florida.


I would say I was 14 years old and coming from Los Angeles where I had just broken up with my first boyfriend. So, I was just in turmoil because I was a teenager and I wanted more from life. I was a very curious teenager. So, Florida wasn’t cutting it. It was interesting though because there was a music scene there that I got into. There was a a punk ska sort of scene that I got into there that every time I would go back to Florida, I would get really into these shows, and some of my friends were in the scene and skateboarding and stuff. So, it got me into that kind of culture because there’s a counterculture there or nonconformist sort of underground culture that I found there that was great.

But yeah, pretty much upon landing, I met this girl I became friends with. We were both the same age and she had a family in Switzerland with a knife shop. So, I spent the next four years bouncing around from six months in Los Angeles, a few months in Florida, and then the rest of the time in Switzerland.

So, tell me a little about your parents. What were they doing at the time and were they supportive of that sort of life view at the time?

I spoke to my parents about their decision to let me move to Switzerland as a 14-year-old and just let me do this. I mean, basically her family, it was her grandmother that owned the knife shop. So, we had our own apartment in Lucerne and we were very free. We had strong desires to travel around Europe, and we were very free to do so on the weekends when we weren’t working in the shop. So, I talked to my dad about it recently. Actually, I was like… because I have a kid now. I have a six-year-old and I was just like, “What were you guys thinking? This is crazy. I don’t think I would do this with my… ” When Frances turns 14, I’m not sure that I would have the courage to trust him to let him go and explore the world as a 14-year-old, and my dad just told me that they were very observant and sensitive to what I was interested in as a child growing up.

I guess you’ve said it in a better way, but I guess academics wasn’t a strong interest of mine in school. So, it was more the creative subjects and the art, and this is true of a lot of kids, I’m sure, but I guess they just observed that I would probably learn more getting this life experience and travel and it would feed whatever they saw was already in me and it would nurture that in me, and they were totally right. I think they just took a big chance there.

And what was life like for you in Switzerland? Was there a culture shock for you at the time?

I don’t remember there being a culture shock. I mean, I guess maybe the word shock has more negative connotations. It was more I was deeply moved to put it. I was deeply moved by the culture because I had grown up in Los Angeles and I was getting into this scene that probably that it wasn’t going to lead anywhere good, and like I said, I was very curious and Switzerland, especially Lucerne where I was, it’s a sleepy town, and it was beautiful. It was stunning and we would go hiking in the Alps and we became friends with the farmers and I was drinking raw milk right from the cow when we’d get up to the top of the trail and it was just this completely extraordinary experience that made me realize that people live very differently all over the world and people are just so interesting.

I just became so interested in people and culture. We would travel in Euros. We got Eurostar passes, and we would just travel around freely and because there were no adults being responsible for us really, which come to think of it is just completely illegal now, I guess, but we ended up becoming responsible for ourselves. So, it was an interesting turn of events because when I left Los Angeles, I was definitely in this phase of rebellion against all figures that wanted to try and control me, and when I arrived in Switzerland and started immersing myself in the beauty and culture and tasting the food and the meeting people and learning the language and stuff, because there was a moment where I spoke pretty good Swiss German, but it’s not used anywhere else in the world. So, I lost it fairly quickly after I came back for good, but yeah, it completely changed me and transformed me, and it allowed me to see completely different perspective on how I could live life.

And then I read that your life changed on a dime when you saw William Eggleston exhibition at the Getty Museum when you were about 20. So, you had returned to the States at that point, and he credited with legitimizing color photography into this new art form and I’m curious, like what was that like when that light bulb went off and when you saw his work, what stood out to you?

So, yeah, I’d never seen color depicted like that on a wall through photography before and I’d only ever seen photographs used in Advertisements or fashion photography in a more commercial way. So, seeing it on the walls of the museum, I don’t know how else to say it, but I’d used this term, I was struck blind by a vision because it’s corny, but that’s literally what happened. It was just so clear to me what I was going to be doing with my life in the moment that I walked into that museum and I saw the photographs, and I had been looking for something before that because I have to say that I was actively looking for my purpose in life because I felt a strong desire to get out of the office cubicle that I was in.

I think at the time, I was working three crappy jobs that were leading to nowhere and just to survive and pay my rent, and then I was 19 or something. So, I was spending way too much money every month, and then I was having to go sell my clothes and CDs to pay for food and it was just like this cycle of spending too much and then selling the things that I shouldn’t have bought and just figuring out my finances through trial and error, but I did have this kind of epiphany in my cubicle one day where I saw my entire life unfold before me, and that wasn’t the life that I had imagined and I realized there was no trust fund waiting for me when I turned 25. There was no grandma that was going to die and then suddenly, I was going to have a different life. There was no way that anything that I saw in my future was going to change.

Unless you did it yourself.

Unless I created the change, yeah. So, it was this really wild moment where I knew I needed that change. So, I became very active in searching for how I was going to change my life because it just wasn’t the life. I didn’t agree with that life that I was seeing unfold. So, the idea was just to immerse myself even more because already at the time, all my friends were painters and musicians and poets. Everyone I was surrounded by was already creative and a couple of them were professionally creative.

So, when I saw this exhibition, I went back to one of my friends who’s a professional painter, and I told him that I wanted to be a photographer, and that’s how I saw myself and I was like, “I found it. This is what I’m going to do. I just know it,” and he immediately sat me down and basically said, “Being an artist is a very serious thing. You need to take it seriously. You need to know your craft,” and he gave me this basically a whole speech about if you’re really going to do this, you need to do it professionally and do it as a professional would and learn the craft and it was great. It was great advice.

So, how did you start? Because you’re known as a self-taught photographer, and you want to do this professionally, and it was only a few years later that I think it was your first body of work, “The Book of Disquiet,” I think this came out, right? So, I mean, how did you get from A to B? How did you do that and make that leap, because that’s quite impressive.

Right. So, I was already feeding on this energy that I was feeling. There’s no other word for it other that. I became possessed by the medium. I loved everything about it to the point where I was working my job during the day, and then at night… I would have my camera with me at all times. So, at night, I would just go out on the streets. This is how I started. Like everyone when they first pick up a camera, I would go out on the streets with my black and white film and I would just shoot the people around Los Angeles and I was always by myself and then at 1:00 in the morning, I’d come back and I’d process my film in my dark room that I had set up in my bathroom because I found some on eBay. I found this dark room equipment on eBay.

This woman was getting a divorce from her husband who was a photographer, and she was selling all his stuff. So, I got lucky, and yeah, this lasted for about six months, and then my friend, who was a photographer, who had been a photographer for about two years at that point, wanted to do a show, but was too scared to do it alone. So, she asked if I would show with her in the back room of this makeshift gallery in Beverly Hills. So, I agreed. So, I showed all of my black and white prints that I’d made, and I’d traveled to New York a few times in those six months. So, I showed some of those pictures, and then I showed one color photograph that I’d staged with a friend of mine, and it was that color photograph that people wanted to talk about with me at the exhibition and I realized that through those conversations and also through the act of making the photograph that that was what I wanted to pursue.

I wanted to pursue that color photography more and explore it more. So, from that point on, about six months into my photography, I switched gears and I just immersed myself in the color photography that I started staging with my friends and family.

And what did people react to when they saw that photo? Was it the fact that it was color, you think? Or was it the fact that it was staged or a little bit of both?

I think it was just this line between reality and fiction, but also this layer of beauty on top that underneath had a much darker underbelly because it was… You couldn’t tell almost if you were looking at somebody that was living or dead, but it was so beautiful. The colors that I used were very much in line with the primary early Americana sort of color photography that I love. There was turmoil in it and questions in it. It wasn’t just a pretty picture. There was the beginnings of what I would then explore much more deeply.

And were you creatively fulfilled at the time, like as a young artist, having your first show only, like you’re saying, it was six months out? That’s incredible.

Honestly, it was the best. Nothing has changed. I’m still so excited by the creative process of having an idea and just diving into it.


“California, Too” (2024) by Alex Prager. Photo: Alex Prager, Courtesy Lehmann Maupin

And shortly thereafter, I mean, early on comes your… It was a book and a project of “Polyester,” which is, as you’re talking about this staged element, but there’s this huge cinematic quality of course to everything that you do, and I feel like maybe in Polyester is that first… where it really manifests as cinematic or almost like a retro infused Hitchcock kind of vibe and where did that come from? Were you a big cinemaphile or whatever the right term is to use? Where was that sort of cinematic quality coming from?

Yeah, I was always watching movies, and my grandmother and I would watch movies and we’d always have old movies playing, like old black and white movies playing on the TV, and my grandmother was always in my life. She was my best friend, and her friends were my friends, and they were just the coolest. My grandmother had such an interesting life. She was very independent and strong and had four kids and four husbands. One of her best friends was this woman Wilma, who was an ex-Hollywood starlet and Wilma’s children didn’t want her old clothes when she was moving into a nursing home. So, she knew I appreciated all that stuff. She knew I just loved it, and she knew that I was a photographer and she often let me use her house that’s now been demolished. I always had planned to buy it eventually if I ever gathered the money.

But I drove by a couple years ago and it had been demolished, which is so sad because it was the coolest house, but yeah. She gave me these old boxes of clothes and there was some wigs in there, and there was just the most amazing stuff because it was stuff she used to perform in. So, I started using this stuff in my photography and immediately saw the practical benefit of using wigs because it saved time, and people just transformed into another identity the moment I plopped it on their head, but also there was a slight tackiness to it that I loved because you transformed these characters into a fabricated world.

You knew it was this world that didn’t exist, or it existed in a parallel universe, but real emotions could exist in that world and grounded feelings and I could talk about real problems that I had questions about and things that I was grappling with as a person, as me, Alex, and I could put it into these characters that were clearly completely created from these costumes and wigs and props that I would put together and that really did something for me. Actually, it gave me catharsis somehow because I was able to control these things that I felt turmoil around or questions around, confusion around, and put it in something that I could control and I could admire and feel joy from and beauty from without ignoring what was in there. So, there was something really interesting. There was something that drew me into that.

So, it sounds like it’s this idea of costumes essentially as a way of masking the world in general or putting things on an even playing field, I guess.

Yeah, exactly. It wasn’t masking. It was actually a way of looking at things more clearly, which is funny because to put on a mask in order to see doesn’t make any sense, but that’s exactly what it did and I think that’s what theater has been for people since through the ages. It doesn’t matter if the actors aren’t any good, or you can tell they’re wearing costumes and wigs. If there’s something real that they’re talking about that’s coming through in the performance that’s able to meet you exactly where you are at that point in your life, if you see the artifice and you see the cracks and the seams. You watch a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, and every once in a while you see the boom come down into frame and that doesn’t matter. In fact, to me, it adds to it because you’re in agreement that you’re watching a fiction about something very real.

Anytime you sit down and watch a movie, you know that you’re watching a movie. So, why does it need to look like real life? It still has the same power to affect you and move you if the intention from the filmmakers is really there and gets across in the movie. So, yeah, the same thing was I was having the same realization with artifice. It’s a very powerful tool.

And then comes “Despair,” and it’s like the video element of this, and it starred Bryce Dallas Howard and I’m curious, like how did that big leap happen and convincing an actress to come along? I think it was the first work of yours that I had seen in a museum context anyhow, and just being blown away by the scale of it and both the glamour and also kind the mystery and the world building that you were doing at the time and tell me a little bit about that.

So, yeah, I had never done a film before and I was already into a few… I’d had a few meetings with Roxanna about the new photography show coming up, and she had indicated to me that she wanted to use some of my work in the exhibition that she was curating and I don’t remember how close it was to the final opening night, but I think it was four months away or something.

Oh gosh.

Or it was maybe five months. I don’t know. My concept of time is very-


… abstract. So, I could be getting this wrong, but yeah, I think it was six months away or something at the very most, and I said, “Roxanna, I have these storyboards for this film I’m going to shoot, and I really want it to be in the show, and this is how I want it to be exhibited with the photograph side by side,” and I don’t think she had ever shown a film in the new photography exhibition at the time. Maybe she had, but this seemed like a newer concept, and she took a big chance by letting me do it because the film wasn’t finished. So, it got finished pretty late into when we were going to open the exhibition, and yeah, it was amazing and Bryce was incredible. I remember walking onto set the first day. It was my first time being on my movie set. I’d grown up on movie sets being a child actress. Up until I was 12 years old or something, I was on an episode of “Tales from the Crypt” and got to see the Cryptkeeper and the animatronics, and it was just amazing for a kid to see this and I was introduced to the wonders of craft service, but this was my first time on my own movie set, and we shot it on a sound on a backlot, but I was terrified because it was so much bigger than anything I was used to because up until that point I was, I had one assistant. I was holding the camera and the reflector and we’d have one light and one person. It was all very manageable with me. I was doing all the costumes and the makeup.

It was very makeshift and then this, I walk on the set and it’s just this huge production, and I was terrified and then I saw Bryce there in the phone booth. She was rehearsing and Matty was putting the lights up. Matty Libatique was putting the light on her, and I was like, “Oh, I know what I’m doing,” and I just made a beeline to Bryce because that was my subject, and that was the whole reason we were doing this was for her to give us feeling and match our feelings of despair.

So, first, how was that funded? That’s such a big leap, and how did you convince Bryce to do it and to go into a single-person, one-or-two-person thing into a set on a lot? That’s such a big leap.

Yeah, it was a big leap. I think that was a point in my career where… I mean, I guess the very first time I saw the William Eggelson photograph and bought a camera three days later and darkroom equipment that same week was my first big leap into the unknown with everything I had in me. I was just committed and this was a very similar leap into the unknown because it was a much bigger production, a much bigger budget, much bigger responsibility, and to the crew that I was working with and also to Roxanna and MoMA, because everyone was expecting this piece to be in the show at that point, and I realized that that’s what I love is that leap into the unknown.

I realized that that’s where I’m most comfortable, because that’s where I know that that’s where I’m going to make something interesting because… and that’s one of the reasons I love to prep so much is because I do love to go into that very… I mean, it’s like it’s a constant theme in my life and in my work as an artist, it’s something that I need at this point because the moment I start to get comfortable and feel like I know what I’m doing and I feel like I know how it’s going to turn out, that’s when I know that I need to take another leap because the work is always suffering when I get a little bit too comfortable.

I’m curious, when you’re on that set with Bryce and you’re dealing with this crew, was there any tension between a Hollywood crew or a photography crew and the fact that you’re doing this as a fine artist for… I believe it was for MoMA, correct? It was for this sort of tension between art and Hollywood, if you will. Was there any kind of moment where you had to say, “Wait a minute, I’m an artist and we have to shoot it this way,” even though maybe, I don’t know, a lighting guy is like, “No, we should do it this way because this is how we would normally do it on a set”? Was there any kind of difficulty there?

I’ve had just the best crews in my life from the moment I first walked onto that movie set. I think it’s what a Hollywood film crew is, because I’ve been on so many now and I’ve always had the same experience. People are just so… They’re all filmmakers and they care about the story. They care about the emotion, and they care about how it’s lit. Everyone cares about every single department and you really get this. I know why people love making movies so much. Aside from the craft of the actual filmmaking, you get this very communal, collaborative family experience when you’re on a film set and there’s so much heart, and there’s so much love, and Matty Libatique was the first cinematographer I ever worked with, and he’s one of the top five cinematographers in the world in terms of just… He’s mastered the craft to this wild level that very few people can ever get to.

So, I was just so, I guess, lucky in that that was my first experience, and this one time I was working in New York and on a film set, I was shooting a commercial. I love shooting commercials here and there because it’s an opportunity to test out new crew and new camera equipment and try new ideas that I’m trying to wrestle within in my art. I can actually try them first there and then perfect them later in my own time. So, it’s a really amazing place to… like a playground for all of that and I was on this film set, and it was just this shot that we were trying to get. We had done three takes or something of this woman sitting down, putting on her shoe, taking a moment to herself because she’s supposed to be nervous and then standing up and walking out.

So, it was a very simple action, and I called action and we were watching her do it, and I turned around to look at the crew behind me, like the 50-person crew that were there to support this action and every single one of them was completely invested in her action and there was no talking. There was no looking at phones. There was no whispering. It was just complete dedication and commitment to this shot, and I just had this feeling flow through me where I was just like, “I love this so much,” because we’re all playing make believe here. It goes back to that building that world that everyone knows isn’t real, but they know it’s important. For whatever reason, it’s important because it reflects who we are. It reflects our humanity.


“Hollywood (Day)” (2024) by Alex Prager. Photo: Alex Prager, Courtesy Lehmann Mupin

And just like your recent film “Run,” which deals with… There’s a pandemic theme of its people running through a mid-century town that you can tell as a film set and people are evading this enormous silver ball. There’s always this element of a thriller or a disaster film in a way. Obviously, Warhol had the same sort of inclination. He did a lot of that too, but in a totally different way. Do you think about this element of disaster films and thrillers and this kind of drama of how you create and how you come up with the scenarios that you are staging for a photograph or for a film that this idea of crisis in a sense?

Yeah, I would say this moment in between life and death, there’s a suspended moment in time where we feel very close to death. I did a film called La Petite Mort, which is the French expression for this feeling, and they encapsulated in the orgasm. So, yeah, it’s the same feeling though because that expression makes so much sense to me. I’ve always really felt like I understood that, and I want to go there and that’s me diving into the unknown again. I love that feeling of… I mean, I guess it’s just the feeling of being alive because I think a lot of people want to hide from that feeling because life isn’t just cheerful, pleasant feelings.

It’s also the sorrow, the great sorrow and the pain and the fear and the isolation, and there’s so many feelings of turmoil and that leads you closer and closer to death, but then there’s also life on the other side of that, and I want to feel everything in between, and I want to talk about everything in between, and I don’t want to hide from it, and I don’t want to numb myself to it. So, that’s a lot about what Run was about, because I found this Joseph Campbell quote when I was already in pre-production of Run, but it perfectly spoke to what I was aiming to get from Run and it’s, “Life is joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.”

So, it’s really like this idea of Sisyphus, like diving into that willingly and knowing that it’s not all fun and games. So, yeah, I wanted to make a film about that, and I wanted to make it a fun film because what I was talking about wasn’t fun. It was what we were living at the time. So, yeah, I do like that theatrical, playful approach to something very ugly and dark and scary.

And speaking of thrillers, you’re about to embark on your first feature film, which I believe starts filming next year, “DreamQuil,” which was super exciting, and I mean, talk about another big shift into the unknown, like going from the gallery to the silver screen, or however you want to think about it. What made you want to do that? Because obviously Hollywood has so many… I mean, beyond the strikes and everything like that, like filmmaking is something that people talk about a lot as something that is an art form that is going through so much change in turmoil and tell me about this huge leap.

I’m very excited about “DreamQuil.” I have two amazing actors already cast for it, Elizabeth Banks and John C. Reilly, and I just have an amazing team behind me helping me with this, and yeah.

Is it a straight thriller or is there comedic aspects to it, you think?

Oh, there’s definitely humor because anytime I talk about something tragic and dark, I’ve got to have humor. So, yeah, it’ll be interesting though to it explore how to keep the humor without losing the thrills and how to keep the thriller with all of the playfulness and the set design. I want to keep that feeling of artifice. So, I’m tapping into my early days of “Tales from the Crypt.”

Okay. Yeah. Awesome.

And “Hitchcock Presents” and “Twilight Zone.” I love “Eternal Sunshine,” the surrealism in that. I love “Night of the Hunter.” I don’t know if you’ve seen that film, but it’s super dark, but all shot on a sound stage and very clearly on a sound stage.

And without giving anything away, obviously, the film centers around the dangers of AI, and obviously, I’m wondering what your thoughts about AI are in the real world because there is this kind of… It’s come up in the strikes and obviously it’s been a part of… I know in my world of writing and design writing, I know I was at a party and I heard some architects talk about… They were like, “Yeah, we just have ChatGPT just write some of our proposals or do text when we need it,” and you can feel like, “Wow, this is going into a place we don’t truly understand.” So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and why make a thriller about AI?

Actually, I wouldn’t say it’s about the dangers of AI, and I wouldn’t say it’s a thriller about AI, even though AI plays a big part in it. So, you’re correct in that. So, I would personally say it’s about rediscovering what makes us human and rediscovering our humanity through free will to choose between good and evil, because robots are programmed to be either good or evil. In any case, they’re programmed, so they have no free will and we as humans are messy. We are full of feelings. We’re unpredictable. I want to invite people to reclaim their humanity in a way by witnessing their own collapse.

That sounds very dramatic, but…

But in my beautiful color palette.

You have this new body of work coming up, like a total new body of work coming out in Seoul, and what can you tell us about that project? I’m not sure where you are in the creative process at the moment, or if everything’s been shot already or what’s that going to be like?

Yep. So, everything’s been shot. I’m still working with my printer on printing everything because that process takes a long time to get all the colors right and everything. Yeah, it came out of… I was going to make one picture for this very special project that I was working on for something completely unrelated, and that one picture that was inspired by movement and dance, and I wanted to try and capture this emotion of tragedy and angst and just the turmoil of the world through these three dancers.

So, I hired dancers to give me this and as I was prepping for the shoot, I realized it was so much bigger and within two weeks of our pre-production, one picture ballooned into an entirely new project, and I realized it was something I had been thinking about. It was just been percolating for a year and finally it just all came to the surface at once. It was probably the fastest we ever worked in pre-production, and it was probably the most painful shoot I’ve ever done because it ended up being just this gigantic production. Yeah, I guess it’s about diving into the unknown again in a way, but very much based in the American experience of what we’re going through as a country.

How so? Can you explain a little bit?

It’s hard to explain because the images aren’t done. So, yeah, I wanted to bring graphic novels into it and film noir and American iconography and history paintings have that feeling of battle won and the pain of war and I didn’t want to… Like all of my work, I wanted to keep it churning enough and ambiguous enough that it speaks universally to anything that we might be feeling collectively at this time because there’s a lot of things that we’re all experiencing, because we’re going through a major change right now. There’s a major transition happening, and quantum computers are fully part of life now, and who knows how that’s going to change things going from the digital computer to the quantum computer?

It’s just mind-blowing how fast things are about to change and we all feel it. We know we’re on this precipice, and I wanted to put that into this new body of work, but in a joyful way with a little wink always.

And as one of my last questions, as someone who’s… I recently bought a camera that’s not a phone and readjusting to new world of photography, and in the year 2024, when this will come out, what advice would you give out to all of those people listening that are trying to teach themselves photography and trying to just think about how to even approach it in the age of the iPhone and Instagram and everything like that? What kind of practical or just any kind of advice would you give them?

Huh, that’s such a good question, and this is coming from someone that’s not a gear head, so I’m not going to tell you what camera to buy or how to use it, but don’t shy away from your instincts and your feelings and your interests because every one of us is completely individual in our own experiential track, in our own what inspires us and what comes to life for us, and if we just trust that in ourselves and we don’t try and numb ourselves to the world and the feelings, but we actually just open ourselves up to it and try and be brave and have courage to willfully go in the direction that you’re feeling, I think it’s inevitable that something unique will come out of it and it’ll transcend whatever digital or quantum age that we’re in and whatever app is the thing of all the rage. None of that matters because this will cut through all of that and it’ll speak to people and it’ll speak to the humanity, and you’ll find your people that also share those feelings.

And when it comes down to photography as a modern day artistic medium, now looking back, what does photography mean to you today?

Well, photography is an incredible medium to express my feelings in a single frame. So, there’s always going to be be that interest there because it’s the only way I can express those suspended moments of between life and death, that kind of single frame moment because film plays with a whole storyline. It has to go through the entire film, and it’s a very different medium. The more I get involved in feature films, the more I realize that the power of the single frame because it allows us to… It invites people in a different way where they can put more of themselves into the picture.

It allows an individual experience that’s more private. Whereas a film, I think it makes sense that you would want to go to a theater and see it with a group of people because it’s much more of a shared experience because you’re being… As much as you can be invited in by the filmmaker, I think there’s less room for you because the filmmaker really is telling you a story and it’s always great when there’s room for interpretation so that it becomes reflective of your individual experience too, but I think there is less room for that in film than there is in art.

And knock on wood that you’re going to be doing many feature films in the future. Do you think you ever see yourself stop stopping the still life or stopping the single-frame image making?

I can’t ever see that. No. If anything, my interest in still photography has grown. It’s like my love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. Film is my spouse… Sorry. Photography is my spouse and film is my mistress. So, there’ll always be a love there. That’s a stable home for me to go back to and explore and experiment and it’s really meaningful to me to have that other medium to get myself reinvigorated, and I think it’s a way too that I can use it almost like a sketch pad for my movies because I can really take a certain emotional event. It’s actually how I approached “Despair.”

I took a single frame that represented the emotion of “Despair,” and I made a film on either side of that frame and I think that’s still how I use photography in a way. I can put an entire emotion in a single frame and it really is like a poem and then I can use the two-hour film experience that’s narrative, like the prose experience to talk about how we get to that emotion and how we get through it.


Thank you to our guest, Alex Prager, as well as to everyone at her gallery, Lehman Maupin in New York for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, don’t forget to visit our website and sign up for our newsletter, The Grand Tourist Curator at, and follow me on Instagram at @danrubinstein, and don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’d like to listen and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Till next time!


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