(work in progress)
I made my first-ever trip to Las Vegas in the autumn of 2010, as part of a family excursion through the American southwest. Like most first-time visitors to Vegas, I was taken aback by the crowds, the noise, the hubbub, and the glitz. But -- three years into the worldwide economalypse that started with the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008 -- I sensed in the ostentatious craziness a wary, muted quality; tensions were palpable beneath the façade. Watching Vegas at play, it seemed like an aging frat boy, still partying desperately into middle age, trying to keep up appearances and convince himself he's having fun. I knew I would have to return to explore this undercurrent further.
During the early years of the 21st century, Las Vegas was the fastest-growing metro area in the US. There was a job for anyone who wanted to work; housing all those workers meant new homes went up as fast as builders could drive the nails, and mortgage lenders could close the deals. But things that can't last, don't; when the housing bubble inevitably burst in 2008, Vegas became Ground Zero, the sad exemplar of a cratered economy. By some estimates, home prices fell over 50% from 2006's peak values; and as many as 80% of Vegas-metro mortgages were (are) underwater, with Nevada leading the nation in foreclosures since 2007.
It would be obvious simply to photograph the shuttered buildings and acres of unsold tract homes that bespatter the metro area; those are the physical manifestations of the Vegas economalypse. But beneath these encrustations of recent man-made history, there also remains the starkly beautiful, human-imprinted southern-Nevada desert, with its astonishing light and rich palette of colors. I have long had an interest in the built landscape, and in few places is it as photogenic as in this part of the American southwest.
What about the visitors, the tourists? Talking with cab drivers, bellhops, and others who perform the city's "small jobs", I'm told that they keep coming to Vegas -- as affirmed by the crowds we negotiated during our 2010 visit -- but that they are fewer in number, and spending far less money than in better times past. Despite the melted trillions of national wealth, people still need -- perhaps more than ever -- a getaway. But, walking along the Strip, there is the faintest whiff of threadbare fatigue about the environment. You can sense the unease behind the faces of the passersby, a discordant note in a city devoted to fantasy and gratification. This unease is what I felt so strongly; it's what I've started, and hope to continue, to explore as this project develops.
Economalypse | Project Statement | Michael Sebastian