Our Las Vegas commissioned veteran writer Geoff Carter to pen an essay in conjunction with our City Hall-Emergency Arts dual exhibitions project. Rather than write specifically about the project, we asked Geoff to apply his keen sense of the city to a text that reflected the current state of culture in The Radiant City. We are grateful to Geoff for lending his time and creativity to the project.
IN THE CITY OF DETAILS
IN the summer of 2001, I bought a new digital camera. It was expensive – nearly $400 for just 3.5 fat, sluggish megapixels – and strictly speaking, it wasn’t something that I needed. If I needed photos for any of the stories I filed for the Las Vegas Sun, I could simply walk to the photo department and recruit Aaron Mayes, Ethan Miller or one of several other award-winning photojournalists whose talents and gear quite easily outclassed my own.
Still, I really wanted a camera, and I got one. I was obsessed with capturing details, and I convinced myself that that $400 acquisition somehow fed back into my professional work. If I needed to write something about the late-afternoon light in Icebox Canyon or the size of the bosom on the figurehead of Cleopatra’s Barge, it only seemed right that I collect those details myself.
But that’s not the only reason I took up the digital camera. The storyteller in me has always wanted to frame the past and to imagine a window on the future, and with the storage capabilities of a digital camera, I could do that: I could shoot fifty photos to get one, the rough equivalent of editing out entire paragraphs to save one good sentence. And so I set about telling Las Vegas’ story visually: Walking the Strip with the tourists to photograph the future, and going to Downtown Las Vegas to document the past.
It didn’t quite go my way. Looking back at them today, my Strip photos aren’t terribly interesting. They certainly don’t look like the future – not as we dreamed it, not as we know it. The various resort façades look good, some even better than they do now (this was before every hotel on the Strip felt it necessary to build a cheap, ugly bar out front), but for the most part, those old photos show a Vegas that’s trapped in stasis. There are only so many ways you can package chance, and once construction began on the expressionless Fontainebleau, we basically confessed that we were done trying to be clever about it. We reached for the past, back when casino towers weren’t pyramids or palazzos, just unadorned towers where we would sleep off our losses.
I enjoyed my Downtown photo excursions much more. I photographed the length of Fremont – from the resort corridor underneath the recently built Fremont Street Experience canopy to the rundown motels of unsheltered lower Fremont. I wandered the Naked City (by daylight) and the dirt lot-and-asphalt desert of what would become the Arts District. Something told me to pay attention to the vintage neon signs of Downtown, and I lavished extra attention on my favorites: Swim-In Pool Supply’s girl on a slide (now gone), the Clark Inn (gone), the Blue Angel (going).
In July 2002 I moved to Seattle to be with a girl I’d fallen for. That’s what I told my friends and family, and it was the truth. But at the same time, there was another, unspoken truth in me: I wanted to leave town. It wasn’t because I was tired of living here, but because I wasn’t, and that scared me a little bit. I could easily have lived in Vegas for another decade, but I had to know if I could leave. I had to know if I could take root in different soil.
Once in Seattle, I noticed some changes in me almost immediately. I became more reserved and thoughtful. My daily life slowed down considerably; by the end of my first year I actually gave up my car in favor of public transit and walking. But perhaps the most important change in me was that I no longer perceived the details as being merely something I’d use later to fill in the big picture. I began to relish a city’s surprises – its small pleasures and moments of intimacy.
It sounds ridiculous now, but it took me moving to another city to fully appreciate what this one has to offer. When I left Las Vegas in 2002 I still thought that we had to build bigger to get better – a belief born of growing up in casinos and at Disneyland. Seattle taught me otherwise. You can’t begin to know the city from the top of the Space Needle; you have to experience it from pedestrian level, slowly and deliberately, giving equal time to every one of your senses. My life in Seattle was a catalog of quiet, small pleasures. Sweet smells that came once a year. Tastes I would bus across town for. Sights I would drink in greedily, without even reaching for my camera.
I probably don’t need to remind you of what happened in the ten years I was away from Las Vegas – the recession that nearly wiped us out; the birth of First Friday and an Arts District to support it; the opening of the Springs Preserve, the Mob Museum and Smith Center; and Tony Hsieh’s $350 million investment in Downtown, among other things. These are the big stories; you can read them daily or simply walk around the city and see them play out live. What interests me is that, in the decade I was learning to embrace the details, Las Vegas produced a multitude of new ones.
There are gorgeous murals painted in the alleyways of the Arts District. Our small playhouses are producing thought-provoking work. The Velveteen Rabbit and Frankie’s Tiki Room serve up cocktails that are like nothing else I’ve tasted. New sounds spill from the city’s music venues, everything from country to electro. The galleries are spilling over with the singular visions of artists who have transformed this town’s visual overload into something even more wonderous. It’s as if we’ve all woken up and realized, at long last, that the broad outlines of Las Vegas already exist, and that we only need fill them in.
Las Vegas is real. Nearly two million people live in and around it. Any talk of Las Vegas becoming a “real city” belongs to the distant past. Las Vegas is here, by good luck or dumb luck. What we’re doing now is rooting ourselves at last in this familiar soil. And since I’m single again (long story, and we’re nearly done here), I’ve replanted myself here in Las Vegas, and I like the natural ways in which I’m branching out.
I seldom take pictures anymore. I lost my obsession with photography years ago. But lately, I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t take it up again – not to bank up details, document the past or look for the future, but to simply steal the moment, as you’re supposed to do. This is a moment worth stealing; it is Las Vegas’ future come at last. This is the time when we make this city our Las Vegas. And we’re going to do it by simply enjoying this place and its many small pleasures, and perhaps adding a few of our own.
Las Vegas, Nevada.
One learns from his bio on the Vegas Seven site that “Geoff Carter has been writing about Las Vegas since 1994, when he joined the staff of Scope, the alternative magazine that would later become the Las Vegas Weekly. He wrote for virtually every publication with ‘Vegas’ in its name—including Vegas.com, the Las Vegas Sun and the self-published Geoff Carter Lives in Las Vegas and is Awesome —until 2002, when he took a ten-year ‘weekend’ trip to Seattle. He returned to Vegas in May 2012 to become one of Vegas Seven‘s senior writers and to be the editor of DTLV, the authoritative, yet mellifluous voice of downtown Las Vegas. His work has also appeared on MSN.com, in Time Out‘s 1000 Songs to Change Your Life and in the Seattle Times. And he won an award once, but he gave it to his dad.”
Photograph by Our Las Vegas Lead Photographer Ginger Bruner.
Our Las Vegas thanks DowntownProject for their support of the exhibition project and catalog essay.