I didn’t know it at the time, but I was on my way to Paradise.
The Las Vegas Strip is not located in Las Vegas proper but in the unincorporated town of Paradise, Nevada. The Las Vegas basin is indeed a veritable paradise, a meadow in the Mojave desert with a low water table that supported habitation, some say, for over 10,000 years. In the early 20th century it also supported ambitious entrepreneurs who wanted to bypass the restrictions of Las Vegas proper, creating a new frontier on the frontier.
Flying over the River Mountains into McCarran airport you are struck by the beauty of the landscape. Last Vegas sits in a valley surrounded by mountains on each side. One could not think of a more out of place setting for a place nicknamed Sin City than amidst the grandeur you see before you 10,000 feet in the air. And then, as you begin your descent, the casino hotels pop into view and the irony of the Luxor’s pyramid is both exhilarating and a ridiculous practical joke. In that instant you are presented with the dichotomy of Vegas, straddling the sublime and the ridiculous with blunt steel and verve.
Like weather in the desert, these highs and lows have their own kind of astringent charm. The contrast brings out certain details that might otherwise be invisible. The extremes reveal. And so, it is a terrific place to take pictures - maybe even a place intended to be taken as a picture.
The Las Vegas Strip is America’s return of the repressed. It is a place of, to quote Freud, “fantasies, slips of the tongue, and parapraxes in general.” The Strip describes Las Vegas Boulevard, a large artery with hotel/casino properties dotted along each side, but it is also itself a parapraxis, a slip of the tongue with double meaning: a double entendre on striptease.
Sex is both the undertone and overt metaphor for nearly all activity in Las Vegas. At night on the strip you can’t toss a nickel without hitting someone soliciting escort services or offering a chauffeured limo ride to a strip club.
But it’s not all fun and games. The play of the unconscious is truly set free and the fears of sex are equally as present as its allure. For every promise of a liberating, unencumbered sexual encounter there is the reminder that it, like all pleasures, is fleeting and illusory. It is a Mirage; a sleight of hand conjured by an Illusionist - illusions being a staple of Vegas entertainment.
Perhaps this is why Vegas is the success that it is: it doesn’t make any promises it cannot keep. Paradise is make believe and it makes no bones about it.
At first blush, thinking about the natural environment surrounding Las Vegas, you might be inclined to erect a man/nature dichotomy where one is illusion the other reality. This is true but only partly. What strikes you about the parks surrounding Las Vegas is how well-maintained and orderly they appear. Domesticated wilderness. I was driving on Route 9 through Hurricane, Utah listening to Spotify on my iPhone connected to the stereo system in my rental car. M83 was playing When Will You Come Home? a synthy atmospheric piece that would fit nicely as a soundtrack for a spacewalk scene in a SciFi film. On the road in front of me was a mountain range that looked like footstools belonging to a race of giants. It was a beautiful and completely surreal moment made possible by man-made intrusions on nature.
The danger of the parks in the West is that they seem so domesticated, so Disneyfied, that you do not appreciate their danger. A sign in Red Rock Canyon reminded me of the number of people who die each year frolicking along the cliffs. This did not seem to make an impression on the people gamboling up the side of the canyon. I suppose they did a quick calculation and liked their odds.
A Numbers Game
Vegas is a palace built on the foundation of mathematics. It’s all numbers. Some are said to be lucky but they all amount to the same thing: a steady calculable profit. Craps is the most exciting game in the casino. When a shooter is on a good roll you feel that you can predict the future, that the next roll is pre-ordained and God whispers the secret in your ear. But the casino always retains it’s edge and the odds are relentlessly consistent.
Fortuna spins her wheel and our fates are altered: the rich is made poor and the poor rich. But in Vegas Fortune is not dispassionately objective; she works for the house. No matter how much a high roller takes in on a hot hand, as long as the house can get the gambler to keep his money in play, the numbers are on their side.
“It’s a numbers game,” one said to the other. I was eavesdropping on a conversation between a man soliciting limo rides to a strip club to his acquaintance, perhaps his understudy. “Most will say no, but the only way you can get your quota is to keep asking.”
The logic of the house has made it’s way to the streets.
Perhaps this is what makes Vegas America’s city. Maybe it wasn’t democracy that made America great; perhaps it was just single-minded doggedness. It’s why VCs keep investing in startups. It’s why nature creates variety. It’s why you keep taking pictures even when none seem to be left.
Just like soliciting strangers on the Strip, photography is a numbers game. As Cartier-Bresson said, Your first 10,000 are your worst. One can only imagine what this number is after digital inflation, but the principle is sound. Persistence is the way to paradise.