Two rural communities have ominously declared themselves the “Gateway to Death Valley” — Baker, California and Beatty, Nevada — each isolated as the last stop before miles of harsh landscape. Photographer Pamela Littky spent time in both places from 2009 to 2012, getting to know the people there, and how they survive in the inhospitable terrain.
“Maybe this project stays with me so strongly because during the time I made it, there was so much turbulence in the rest of the world,” Littky writes in her introduction to Vacancy, a monograph of the photographs being released this September by Kehrer Verlag. “The economic crash, the housing and employment crises, the long wars still going. But when I came back to these towns, all that didn’t seem to make a big difference. 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.”
The Los Angeles-based photographer is better-known for glossy, editorial photographs of celebrities, and while she took that same hyperrealistic sheen to the desert, the Kodak film captures are much more about a world where the most glamor is in an ostentatious illuminated sign for “Free Parking” over a ghostly empty lot. While some of it does have the expected visual despondency of rural places on hard times — the blank-eyed bingo players, the abandoned motel pool — there’s also an admiration for the spirit in making a home through resilience in the middle of nowhere. The shots from Beatty and Baker mingle together interchangeably, two sides of the same scorching landscape, offering food, tires, guns, and brothels as the last scrap of civilization before the complete inhospitality of Death Valley.
As Littky writes: “I could compare these two ‘gateways’ now and it was easy to see what they had in common: physical features like the abundant mobile homes and aging signage, but also a community stick-togetherness that results to some degree from the extreme environment.”