by Michael Betancourt
Reno, Nevada provides both the subjects and the backdrop to this portfolio by Pablo Power, although what is remarkable about these photographs is that the ‘there’ of his Reno is radically different than what might be anticipated: the casinos, Reno’s main claim to fame, are essentially absent. In their place we see disinvestment, decapitalization, dereliction—a vision of urban decay played out under a hard bright sunlight and colored by streetlamps at night. Yet, it is a deep sense of suspension, rather than entropy, that pervades this world.
The project documented here belongs to a special category of study, that of the participant-observer: Power traveled to Reno in the spring of 2007 to live among his subjects “every day for a month on [the] same street. I didn’t shave or change my clothes for the month, and showered only occasionally”—blending in with them, becoming one of them. Time does not pass here; it accumulates. As a study of America—and Americans—these photographs suggest what Robert Frank’s study might be like if photographed by Diane Arbus: this is Frank’s Americans, but on meth, or crack, or heroin. This is not an ugly world, so much as a cast-off one; the actual space where these photographs originate is Reno, but it is the Reno that lies on the periphery of the casinos, that falls at the edges of the town. The space presented here is more than simply marginal, in some ways it lies beyond the margin, just over the horizons of our expectation and familiarity: what we see here is a space that has already been consumed by poverty, and what remains is the life that proceeds in spite of circumstances.
The residents of this marginal world have, as Power discovered, “a strange interaction with the casinos, though. Only the most abject of the people there don’t go to the casinos every single day. Everyone seems to be working on some way to win or hustle up a few bucks. If not working one of those angles, the casinos still have the cheapest food and beer in town, and a comfortable place to sit and watch sports for as long as you want. The casinos definitely serve to provide some odd delusion of normalcy to people who are anything but, and in a place that is so not. One casino in particular really has a funny, almost charming community of vagrants, who will literally bump into each other after sometimes not having seen each other for years, exchanging stories of whichever hospital or prison they were most recently were released from.” The superficial familiarity the casinos provide creates an illusion of passing normalcy for the residents of this world. It is a place they can visit, but it is only a passing- through—they inevitably return to the exterior space, alien visitors to the vision of America the casinos create.
What is notable about this world is not that it is a space of abandonment—it is that this is a place where life continues in spite of being marginal. In living among these residents, Power came to realize “From an outsider’s perspective, one would definitely say that all these people were stranded in some bleak plight, but in reality no one is really trying to make any moves, and seems pretty content. There are quite a few who are only passing through, but for the most part everyone’s ended up there, and I guess just stopped trying to leave after a while.” To be stranded suggests that there is a desire to move on; these residents are not stranded, they have arrived: the world shown here is the destination, rather than a reef preventing them from getting somewhere else. This sense emerges is apparent in the stillness of the photographs: there are no cars on these streets—there is nowhere to go, and no way to get there. Any motion that happens is the compulsive motion of repetition, rather than a directed motion suggesting a plan.
Nevertheless, these are not images of abjection so much as a cool presentation of facts: this is an America without money, one where the possibilities of the past have been foreclosed on by the realities of the present. Reno provides a testing ground where the “American Dream” is counterposed to the “American Reality”: what we see playing out here is the archetypal American “can do” mentality confronted by the reality of what can actually be done—a collision that is only apparent to an outsider looking in. Reno, like the idea of “America” it offers, is a center of attraction which draws people into its orbit, their trajectories circumnavigating the gravity of their situation, the continuity between one day and the next.
The significance of these photographs is as a vision, not of a future or potential America, but of the reality of America in 2007, lies in the stoic dimensions of these American’s actual lives: life continues. In imaging this world, Power offers a stark contrast to the safely comforting mediated versions of both Reno and the greater America that contains it—in place of rampant consumption, there is the getting-by; instead of abundance, there is making-do. These facts are striking precisely because the America Power presents coexists with another, vastly richer. And Reno, Nevada, as with its relative, Las Vegas, stands as a glittery icon of the hopes of fabulous wealth, freedom from responsibility, and bohemian fantasies of the bourgeoisie. That along side that fantasy lies a “bohemian” reality with all the tawdry violations of middle class moral fantasy such reality entails makes these photographs a powerful document.
In one photograph a woman looks hard into the distance, but this is not an image of a visionary, what we see is the long-distance look of the hardened, watching for the next opportunity to come along. For these residents there is no place better than this, it is where they have chosen to be: what is disturbing to outsiders looking into this reality is not its squalor or poverty, but the idea that it has been chosen, consciously, rather than a transitory state fallen into out of desperation. To accept that it is a choice means that we must confront the possibility that this is a viable, real “life style,” which then requires our serious consideration as an actual community. In allowing us to see this group of people in this way, Power grants them a level of respect and seriousness not normally granted to these individuals. In acknowledging their decisions and the world they inhabit, the validity of those choices becomes apparent, even if the world those choices create remains alienated from the vision of America most familiar.