“Perhaps it was the dramatically macabre title – the Gateway to Death Valley – that sparked my curiosity. I found myself wanting to explore these small towns and observe the kind of people who would live in the middle of nowhere where temperatures hold at 120 degrees for several months of the year, where the nearest grocery store was 45 minutes away, and where there is seemingly nothing to do,” photographer Pamela Littky writes about Vacancy. I can easily identify with that. In addition, I find it significant that she points out that she wants “to explore these small towns and observe the kind of people” there. In other words, she does not tell us what the people she photographed told her, she shows us images of what she decided she wanted us to look at – and I very much liked what I was looking at: the Country Store in Baker, California, Kids in Beatty, Nevada, Socks hung to dry in Baker, California, the Ensenada Grill in Beatty, Nevada … all the photographs in this book were either taken in Baker, California (“a central strip, a few sit-down restaurants, and most of the residences are trailers”) or in Beatty, Nevada (“another small town that also claimed the title of Gateway to Death Valley.”)
Many years ago, I was driving from Las Vegas to LA and quite a few of the scenes pictured in Pamely Littky’s Vacancy brought back mental images and some of the accompanying feelings from back then. Spending time with this well-done book also triggered memories from a more recent trip through Death Valley that included a night at Marta Becket’s Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction and a visit to a casino at the Nevada border – the pics that Littky took in Beatty brought vividly back this casino visit.
Although photography is said to bring time to stand still, the pics in this tome radiate a strange absence of time and that probably has to do with the sensation of eternity that one can feel in the desert. “The desert air clears everything away,” as Pamela Littky observes.
“I wanted to know why people made their homes in such an extreme environment,” she writes. I would have also liked to know that but, unfortunately, pictures do not offer an explanation. Too bad that Littky did not jot down the conversations she had with the people living there but opted for showing us only pictures with not exactly helpful captions (“Flatbed, Baker, California” for instance, or “Burned Out Truck, Baker, California”). Nevertheless, this is a book I like. For these photographs make me recognise somewhat familiar scenes. But also because they trigger longings for the desert.
I thought it particularly significant that Pamela Littky put her Vacancy-project into a wider context. During the time of her taking the desert pictures there was “the economic crash, the housing and employment crisis, the long wars still going” that however did not affect the small towns of Baker and Beatty. Her explanation? “The gateways to the big desert have never had much to work with in terms of big job-drivers; the people there make it work for themselves.” It might very well be that this is the reason they have chosen, and are capable of living in, such an extreme environment.
by Pamela Littky
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