ART & PHOTOS

The Western Lands

A sunset “fog sandwich” engulfs the City by the Bay at dusk in this photograph from San Francisco on Instagram.
VINCENT JAMES
A sunset “fog sandwich” engulfs the City by the Bay at dusk in this photograph from San Francisco on Instagram.
Three new photo books look at the urban landscapes of the West—with mixed results.

I’ve been on the road a while. After a decade away, I went home to the American West, wanting to see it all at once. During the past year, I spent time in Marfa, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Austin, and Reno, before landing in Portland, Oregon.

Of these cities, the most vivid was Las Vegas. Mornings there, I drove my daughter to preschool, then drove myself to work. If I paid even a little attention to the streetscape—which I often did, because at this time I was deeply unhappy and keeping a lot of secrets, and attention to the Las Vegas streetscape was my way of ignoring all that—I saw families on a daily micro-migration: women, usually, and many, many children moving from one unstable housing arrangement to another. These folks carried their belongings in trash bags, Kmart backpacks, and shopping bags from big-box stores. The volume of stuff, balanced on backs and shopping carts and stroller rigs, was not much more than a midcentury over-packer might’ve brought on a glamorous Vegas vacation, yet I sensed I was seeing everything they owned.

Of course, I never got out of my SUV to ask.

A 1943 scene showing Fremont Street in Las Vegas, from Greetings from Las Vegas.
A 1943 scene showing Fremont Street in Las Vegas, from Greetings from Las Vegas.

I kept thinking about this as I made my way through three new books—Greetings from Las Vegas, by Peter Moruzzi; San Francisco on Instagram, edited by Dan Kurtzman; and Silver. Skate. 70s: California Skateboarding 1975–1978, by Hugh Holland—that illustrate how the mechanism by which we move through a city shapes, warps even, the story that city has to tell.

Greetings from Las Vegas relies largely on industry materials: postcards, ads, and pictures of the casinos themselves. In that sense, it is as nostalgic as a family photo album, reducing the city to a few iconic buildings and the rich men who once owned them. It is not the kind of book to ask what sort of horror-show century gives birth, almost overnight, to a city like Las Vegas. Or what sort of culture builds a vice capital of such grotesque scale and shallow memory. Is Las Vegas the embodiment of all the bankrupt ideologies of the 20th century? Since the 1970s, Las Vegas has warmed by the most degrees of any American city. Planners worry about the extreme heat melting pavement and buckling rail lines. Looking at the familiar images in Moruzzi’s book, I wished Greetings from Las Vegas were more curious about the collective psyche that informs those icons.

A photo showing the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas is one of the many pieces of industry images that make up Greetings from Las Vegas.
A photo showing the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas is one of the many pieces of industry images that make up Greetings from Las Vegas.

A decade after the Great Recession, Las Vegas is still reeling from poverty, an affordable housing crisis, and the undermining of its once stalwart unions. The architecture of the slipping middle class has become increasingly apocalyptic. The gated community in which I lived was ringed by ornamental obelisks of juniper planted along the walls to disguise the barbed wire on top. The access points were monitored by armed guards.

If what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, who carries it? Rather than address questions like this, Greetings from Las Vegas offers only small talk.

Yoga on the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, underneath an art installation titled Graced by Light by artist Anne Patterson, from San Francisco on Instagram.NICHOLAS STEINBERG
Yoga on the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, underneath an art installation titled Graced by Light by artist Anne Patterson, from San Francisco on Instagram.

Something similar is true of Kurtzman’s San Francisco on Instagram, which gives no sense of the street-level dread I so often encounter in the cities of the American West. Climate emergency, homelessness, wealth disparity—these bummers do not exist in the Instagram photos here. Instead, height is a major motif of the compilation. Much of the drama comes in photographs taken from a tower, a bluff, a drone in the sky. Time-lapsed clouds are chief subjects, along with the city’s famous fog wrapping itself around well-known monuments.

One can’t help noticing how insufficient the interface of Instagram is to the project of witness. The technology reshapes reality into nondescript and nonconfrontational images, favoring a placid, soothing beauty. There’s no indication of the Bay Area as a place beset by income inequality, resource hoarding, the brutal prioritization of property over people, where a taxpayer-subsidized Facebook campus is being built in what should be a zone sacrificed to rising seas (a situation detailed by Elizabeth Rush in her excellent book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore). And yet, it’s hard to imagine finding genuine joy or wonder walking down an actual street in the actual Bay Area after immersing oneself in this sleek and stylized holodeck of a book.

The Top of LA, Hollywood Hills, 1976, from Silver. Skate. 70s.HUGH HOLLAND
The Top of LA, Hollywood Hills, 1976, from Silver. Skate. 70s.

Sleek and stylized are not the aims of the thrilling street photography in Silver. Skate. 70s: California Skateboarding 1975–1978, in which Holland chronicles the Southern California skate scene of the 1970s. These black-and-white photographs are alive with grit, grime, and bodies in motion. You feel the heat rising from the empty swimming pools of Los Angeles—those symbols of middle-class leisure and ease drained and appropriated as settings of filth, shred, and sex.

Belmont Drop, San Francisco, 1977, from Silver. Skate. 70s.HUGH HOLLAND
Belmont Drop, San Francisco, 1977, from Silver. Skate. 70s.

Holland distinguishes his photos as street art that happens to be captivated by skateboarding and its subculture. In them, I sense both witness and wonder. The skaters of Southern California flirt with the camera, and Holland in turn sears their spontaneity onto black-and-white film. Set largely in dry culverts and amid urban detritus, the project looks long at the seemingly unrelated: urethane wheels and drought, bad times and bacchanals, innocence and edge. The materiality of the film is captivating, as is Holland’s restless odyssey around Los Angeles.

All three of these books made me think of infrastructure—not just how our cities are made but also the way they are observed and remembered, from what distance. Of the creators, Holland alone was willing to climb over the fence of American normal and down into the dry concrete bowl of lost time. From there, he lionizes the pure kinetic joy of his subjects while simultaneously eulogizing the urban American West.

Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Gold Fame Citrus and Battleborn.

Greetings from Las Vegas, by Peter Moruzzi, Gibbs Smith, 176 pages, $30
Greetings from Las Vegas, by Peter Moruzzi, Gibbs Smith, 176 pages, $30
GREETINGS FROM LAS VEGAS

• By Peter Moruzzi
• Gibbs Smith, 176 pages, $30

San Francisco on Instagram, edited by Dan Kurtzman, Rizzoli, 208 pages, $24.95
San Francisco on Instagram, edited by Dan Kurtzman, Rizzoli, 208 pages, $24.95
SAN FRANCISCO ON INSTAGRAM

• Edited by Dan Kurtzman
• Rizzoli, 208 pages, $24.95

Silver. Skate. 70s: California Skateboarding 1975–1978, by Hugh Holland, Chronicle Books, 160 pages, $40
Silver. Skate. 70s: California Skateboarding 1975–1978, by Hugh Holland, Chronicle Books, 160 pages, $40
SILVER. SKATE. 70S: CALIFORNIA SKATEBOARDING 1975–1978

• By Hugh Holland
• Chronicle Books, 160 pages, $40