Las Vegas Periphery: Views from the Edge
Photographs by Laurie Brown, with an Essay by Sally Denton
The concept of simulacra is fascinating. We have a need and desire to make things look like something else; an outdoor mall that looks like a European village, amusement parks that present a world we are meant to experience as reality, presenting the ideal“photographic moment” to tourists so that they can take with them only the most perfect representation of their experience. There is something disturbing and yet very normal about this phenomena, and it is especially prevalent in American culture today. It’s understandable, really- it’s comforting to be in a new place and be reminded of home and it’s exciting to be home and feel as if you are somewhere more interesting. It is, however, upsetting to hear someone at Joshua Tree National Park remark that the granite rock formations look like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland, and not the other way around.
Las Vegas is the epitome of the simulacra; it exists entirely on its own. Nothing is real, and it makes you wonder what exists outside its constructed reality. In Las Vegas Periphery, Newport Beach photographer Laurie Brown presents the sprawl of this manufactured place. The 89 panoramic images depict the outskirts of Las Vegas, a desolate land turned into a home, fighting to strike a balance between the natural and the constructed, right outside the excess of the city.
Brown has always been interested in the effects and characteristics of urban sprawl. Her earlier book, Recent Terrains: Terraforming the American West, was published in 2000 as part of George F. Thompson’s Creating the North American Landscape series. In Recent Terrains , Brown examines the effects of this development on the greater Los Angeles area, and the new pressure these changes place on the region’s ecosystems. For Las Vegas Periphery, Brown travels east and continues her exploration of this topic, revealing a landscape that provides evidence of both lavish expansion and failed attempts at creating an American paradise.
Mangled chain link fences and power lines surround the edges of Brown’s photos, enclosing grandiose condos and houses within their borders. Signs advertise model homes and “new towns from the American West,” with every house the same as the one next to it, all fading into the landscape. Defeated, premature palm trees dot the horizon. Strange blue bodies of water offer a bit of reprieve from the harsh heat of the desert, but end up looking out of place. While these photographs chronicle more than 10 years, there is a sense that nothing is finished, and there doesn’t appear to be any indication that it ever will be.
As Sally Denton points out in her essay for the book, Las Vegas has always been a place of great change and development. As a third generation Nevadan, Denton provides a brief but thorough history of the Las Vegas Valley.
“ Still, for all its swagger, for the raw presumptuousness of its money and machines, the city has a fragility and precariousness that is palpable. Las Vegas is the ground-zero crossroad where ancient landscape meets modern artifice. There is a sense that it could all blow away tomorrow. That the same forces that have ruled the desert since the beginning of time could swiftly reclaim these castles in the sand.”
Despite the breathtaking mountains and expansive blue skies, Laurie Brown’s photographs are unsettling and eerie, capturing the landscape in compositions that are at once geometric and organic, fabricated and natural. Her choice of panoramic format effectively translates the experience of being faced with such open, lonely places- the viewer is trapped and abandoned in the expanse of the Mojave Desert. Long, foreboding shadows reach across the images, trying to hide the landscape beneath them. The striking absence of people in these photographs speaks to the evolution and development of this area, as well as many places outside larger cities in the West.
What does it mean to build a place for people who are not there?