Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Artist Catherine Borg's newest project finds Sin City amid photographs taken for the 1995 film Casino.
Approached from the highway, the Las Vegas Strip appears as if in a pop-up book. Dazzling and disorienting in color and scale, it looks flat against the monochrome desert. In the popular imagination, that's how the entire city remains: one-dimensional, a place for glitter and vice.
Artist and former Las Vegan Catherine Borg wants to add depth to that image of Las Vegas as Strip alone. "I can’t tell you how many times I would get asked, 'People actually live there?'" she says. "And I'd always have fun telling them, 'Yes, two million people live here.' It was like they were reading from a script."
Borg's recent project "Scouted" also relies on film references, but in a way that she believes presents a "more dimensional" view of the city. By assembling and re-contextualizing composite photographs taken by location scouts for the 1995 film Casino, Borg is giving new life to "back-lot" Las Vegas: "The banal stuff, the intimate stuff," she says. "What you don't see in 30-second commercials."
Borg discovered the photographs in the archives at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas five years ago while looking for inspiration for a bus-shelter design commission. Maggie Mancuso, Casino's head scout, had donated what Borg estimates to be about 2,000 images. Patched together, they reveal the city's less-than-glamorous interiors and exteriors: Anonymous motel rooms, back yards crammed with patio furniture, a man smoking in his living room, a big-rig loading dock.
The Hockney-esque fractures, unusual lighting and vintage colors of the photographs give them a particular aesthetic appeal. (Mancuso was looking for locations that fit Casino's 1970s setting, which makes the 1990s stills doubly retro.) Yet, "these are drugstore-developed photos," says Borg. "They weren’t ever meant for historical record, or to be artistic." But by sifting through and displaying these images—which could have so easily been trashed—Borg gives meaning to them and the city they represent.
It's significant, too, that she's working on this project even now that she lives in Baltimore. "Using images of the city from 10 years before I lived there, taken by people I didn't know, [it's] a way of processing my time there," she says. "It's like having a rear-view mirror."
*Borg notes that she is still processing some of these images for mounting and display.