Pamela Littky: Documenting the Gateway to Death Valley

Ray, Beatty, Nevada
Ray. Beatty, Nevada.

Imagine an A-list party full of Hollywood elite, with the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Costner, Zach Galafianakis, Steve Martin, Lena Dunham and Michael B. Jordan. Any good soiree needs music, so go ahead and invite Rihanna, Beck, Ariel Pink, Karen O, Courtney Love and Diplo too. You've barely cracked the roster of famous folks West Hollywood photographer Pamela Littky has shot in her twelve years in Los Angeles.

Littky's celebrity portraits are iconic. They shed new light and shadow on performers who have been photographed thousands of times before. But the worlds of Malibu, Brentwood and Beverly Hills are small indeed, so Littky undertakes personal projects to spend time looking at something else. The Florida native likes her commercial work, no doubt. But she also likes finding the polar opposite.

This quest led Littky to the deserts of Baker, California and Beatty, Nevada, two towns that lay claim to the title "Gateway to Death Valley." She had noticed the phrase written on a water tank in Baker on the way to Las Vegas, and she kept returning to the area over the next three years, meeting more and more people, shooting more and more photos. The stunning results can be seen in her monograph "Vacancy," published by Kehrer Verlag.

"I love when I get to photograph someone who is not necessarily comfortable being photographed," says Littky. "I shoot a lot of well-known personalities typically for my commercial work, but the people in this book aren't used to a light and a big camera."

You can see the unease on the faces of some of her subjects, such as the four gentlemen hanging outside Reverts Tires -- "The Revert family are the Windsors of Beatty," she says -- or Ray, a mustachioed man in dusty boots who saw Littky setting up her equipment and emerged from his un-air-conditioned mobile home to share his drawings. Littky lit the townspeople just as she would a celebrity, and Ray's stretched neck and nervously clenched fist stand out against a cloudy desert background.

Littky's modus operandi in Baker was simple: She would just show up, hang out in a diner, and talk to people. Once a few agreed to be photographed, others followed. "At a certain point in the project, I really got to know everyone in the town," she says. Beatty was a longer drive, so she called ahead to Beatty Beauty and the Atomic Inn to get her flip-flops in the door. By the time she shot the bingo parlor, half the people inside already recognized her.

Middle of Nowhere, Baker, California
Middle of Nowhere, Baker, California.

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Burned Out Truck, Baker, California
Burned Out Truck. Baker, California.

"You can go to Beatty or Baker if you're trying to disappear from the world, and no one would find you, but you could also completely be a part of a community there and be very involved," she says. "It's very community oriented."

Littky visited a homecoming coronation. She shot the water and sanitation department. She documented discarded cars and burned-out trucks. Abandoned buildings were often unlocked, so she explored those too. She even wound up inside the Beatty Medical Clinic after getting bit by a scorpion.

"It's a cautionary tale to not wear flip-flops in the desert," she says. The doctor asked if she had gout, perhaps an acknowledgment that the closest grocery store was 45 minutes away. "Is this what they diagnose everyone with?" Littky wonders. "When in doubt, go to gout."

Not one to miss an opportunity, Littky made sure to photograph the nurse outside the clinic after receiving her pain medication. The letters painted on the wall are peeled, faded. Nurse Robin stands near an unwound water hose and stares into nothingness, her lips in a slight pout.

"I'm very respectful of these people and I don't want to pry, that's not even what I'm doing," says Littky. "But I am trying to build a rapport with them, and I am genuinely interested in what they have to say."

Lawn Deer, Baker, California
Lawn Deer. Baker, California.

Littky often wound up in people's homes, photographing them in intimate moments backed by faux wood paneling. Arie naps while Sharon sits on their flowery bedspread, wearing only glasses, socks, bra and underpants. Moxy, a sex worker, drapes herself provocatively across a couch covered by a pink blanket, its knit pattern dangling onto pink carpet. There is a pair of pornographic oil paintings above Mack's electric blue armchair, but his vacant eyes and tired lips are the most revealing part of his photograph.

"They would feel very comfortable with me," says Littky. "They would really open up and share a lot." One session ended with a 20-minute goodbye at the door, the woman crying in Littky's arms and telling her not to go.

"Vacancy" offers an intimate look into the businesses and trailer parks many of us only know at 65 miles per hour, and the lack of celebrity distraction allows the viewer to appreciate Littky's compositional skills all the more. But the big question is: What will the folks of Baker and Beatty think of the book?

"I don't know how they would feel about it, but I know that I love how they look," says Littky. "My feeling towards them is love, honestly."


The photographer is having a release party and book signing Friday, September 19, 2014, from 7pm to 9pm at Arcana Books on the Arts, 8675 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, CA, 90232.

Bingo, Beatty, Nevada
Bingo. Beatty, Nevada.
Sharon and Arie, Beatty, Nevada
Sharon and Arie. Beatty, Nevada.
Country Store, Baker, California
Country Store. Baker, California.
Liquor Snacks Soda, Baker, California
Liquor Snacks Soda. Baker, California.
Pool at the Wills Fargo Motel, Baker, California
Pool at the Wills Fargo Motel. Baker, California.

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