Albert Watson: Finding Las Vegas

By Peggy Roalf   Monday November 1, 2010

If Albert Watson's just-released UFO: Unidentified Fashionable Object is a coffee table waiting for its legs, then the soon to be unveiled Strip Search is a performance piece waiting on its audience. A black linen slip case wears a wrap-around super-saturated color view of a road to nowhere in the desert. Once the shrink-wrap is punctured, it becomes evident that the two volumes inside are opposite in format: one vertical, one horizontal. The title begins on the back board and concludes on the front. Neon. Sex Work. Looking for Las Vegas. Guns. Strippers. Alpha males. Alpha females. Alpha landscapes. In the Introduction by Tom Wolf, extracted from his 1965 collection, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a police chief remarks that this is a frontier town whose rough and tumble milieu attracts aggressive people.

Left to right: Breaunna in Cat Mask, Las Vegas Hilton, 2001; Electrical Pylons, Roads Yet to Be Named, Outside Las Vegas, 2001; Ambassador East Motel, 2001. From Strip Search by Albert Watson (PQ Blackwell, 2010).

These are just a few of the themes that emerge in Watson's long-term study of one of the strangest, most mysterious places on earth. "If you go to the Yellow Pages and check out the pages under the word sex in Vegas," he writes, "of course there are listings of escorts, hookers, strippers, male escorts, and so on. You'd think there'd be two or three pages in there but there are hundreds of pages. So there's a dark side to Vegas, and that's part of some of the things I visited and people I met. I didn't always photograph high-end strippers; I photographed low-end strippers, too." In addition, he used every type of camera in his kit, from a half-frame to 35mm to 4 x 5 to 8 x 10. In combination what you get is a kaleidoscopic view of the highly stratified social landscape of Vegas - and its physical surroundings.

At the beginning of the project, Watson found his muse in the form of a dominatrix named Breaunna. "Really good portraiture is a two-way street," Watson wrote, "where someone is throwing little gems out and you're grabbing them. Very few people have a 100 percent fluency in being able to do to do this - this kind of magical reaction with a camera…." Photographs of this young woman with polished skin and Betty Jane hairdo become something of a fulcrum for the pictorial narrative that unfolds around her, viewed from above and below, from shabby back street motels to the deluxe stylings of the Venetian.

The world in which Watson immersed himself is divided nearly in two, with the interior, almost claustrophobic world of strip joints, theatrically decorated hotel suites, and close portraits (the vertical volume), and the agoraphobic world of the Vegas strip with its 12-story neon signs that can be seen from 65 miles away to an airport jetway crowded with plans caught in a dust storm to a back view of the Luxor, whose looming pyramid, engulfed by a polluted sky, invokes contemporary scenes of the Great Pyramid of Giza (horizontal format). Each book is interspersed with iconic images of neon architecture, cars of every status, and landscape features, indoors and out.

Strip Search (227 color and black-and-white photographs published by PQ Blackwell) is set for a December 2010 release, but a single preview copy will be raffled off tomorrow night during SPDs Speakeasy event. Albert Watson will be joined by photo editor Laurie Kratochvil to talk about the making of Strip Search. Tuesday, November 2, 7:00-8:30 pm (doors open at 6:30). Helen Mills Theatre, 137-139 West 26th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), NY, NY. Tickets $10/$25/$30 (students/members/public).