In her new book Vacancy, American photographer Pamela Littky documents two towns on opposite sides of Death Valley in the Mojave Desert - both of which claim the title 'Gateway to Death Valley'. Littky, struck by the fact that both towns seemed to want this claim to fame, travelled to Baker in California and Beatty in Nevada to document these two desert settlements with close-knit communities. Vacancy offers a peek into both towns and their inhabitants.
The photographs in Vacancy were all shot on film and, in many cases, lit in such a way to give the images a cinematic impression. The settings of Littky's photos are varied, including domestic scenes, landscapes, mobile homes, bars, abandoned motels, motel rooms, and more. With this selection, she captures the unique identity of both communities that seems far removed from the archetypal vision of the American Dream. The first photograph in the book, which is the same as the cover image, shows a sky-blue bench, empty and seemingly remote amidst a vast desert landscape of earth, concrete, wood and hills. The vivid colour of the bench stands out in opposition against its beige, parched background. Titled Middle of Nowhere, this photograph emphasises the two sides of these towns: the harsh natural conditions, and the liveliness introduced by the people who live there.
The photographs throughout the book emphasise the financial hardship that the towns of Beatty and Baker face, but also the strength of both communities. The landscape photographs of deserted highways or abandoned motels contrasts to the domestic scenes. For example, a photograph titled Sharon and Arie, taken at a residence in Beatty, portrays an elderly couple in their bedroom. Sharon is shown sitting on the edge of the bed in her underwear while her husband lies down behind her. It's an intimate view into their lives, the room's décor and scattered personal items offering some idea of the simplicity of their lives, yet the image maintains a serious tone, offering dignity and thoughtfulness to the particular struggles and joys of their existence. In the next photograph, Littky captures an abandoned swimming pool in Baker. The pool, which is almost entirely empty save for a muddy puddle, looks nearly inviting despite its decrepitude because of the warm yellow colours of dusk seen in the photograph.
A little further on, a beautiful photograph features two toddlers who have eyes for only each other, their foreheads touching as if they were exchanging secrets. They are at the centre of the photograph, standing together along a deserted road. Beyond the image being very cute, it also suggests something about the towns standing isolated, far away from urban life. Though they are both surrounded by desert, both Beatty and Baker have a lively and close community that might not actually care about what happens outside of their town.
Though on opposite sides of Death Valley, the members of both Beatty and Baker are shown to live similar lives. It is probably also for that reason that photographs of Beatty and Baker are intermingled with each other throughout the book. Only if you read every title, do you realise that most of the portraits were taken in Beatty. Littky explains in the foreword that Baker is an immigrant town, where legal and illegal immigrants live close to one another, making people more hesitant to pose for a photographer than in the town on the opposite side of Death Valley.
In Vacancy, Littky tries to reconcile the hardships of living in a desert town with the personal life and love of the towns' inhabitants. All in all, it is a beautiful account of two towns on the edge of the middle of nowhere.
Vacancy is available for sale from its publisher Kehrer Verlag.