Photographer Mikayla Whitmore pulls apart the magic, demons, and relics of a loaded landscape.
Some of Nevada's most common clichés are casinos, the grand canyon, and problematic HBO series. Photo-historically, Nevada and California's landscapes often tie to the canon of American photographers set to document and preserve their wild terrain.
For Whitmore, a Las Vegas native, its history is wrapped in b-movies, Hollywood tropes, and all kinds of colorful magic, but is also tainted by our current political climate.
Her recent series There Is No Right Time mixes straightforward topographical scenes with attention to inconsequential details that serve as unexpected monuments. In one image, a strange billboard juts from desert dirt to stark blue sky – the peculiarity of natural and human-made shinning on its own. In another, a rusty metal barrel with the words "Jesus is Coming" sits in the center of the frame. In Whitmore's words, these images "amplify mementos of American values by way of isolation and freedom."
What exactly are these relics of American values? I spoke with Whitmore to learn more.
Interview by Jon Feinstein
Jon Feinstein: What draws you to this terrain?
Mikayla Whitmore: I was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada. My lineage is deeply tied into the back rooms of casinos and the grit of the desert sand. There is a sense of rebellion and freedom sprawling thru the wide open spaces. Being off the grid, but on the radar.
Growing up, I was intrigued and exposed to an array of B movie sci-fi and Hollywood classics like “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” or the fan favorite “Tremors.” They were very different genres of cinema, but they had one thing in common…the desert. I still have dreams of giant nuclear clad radiating atomic ants marching over the sandy hills towards the glowing lights of a city, possibly Las Vegas, possibly influenced by the movie “Them”.
Also, the idea of mirages and the saying “86’d” always comes to mind as types of lineage and local mythologies directly tied to Las Vegas. The mob had a heavy influence within the early days of Vegas and I imagine still has some footing, in a more corporate sense. Back in the hay day, the saying “86’d” referred to being nixed from a joint, driven 80 miles out of town, and buried six feet under. The desert is full of secrets, of triumphs, and regrets, treasures, and demons lie beneath the surface. Every time my feet walk on the sand, I imagine what might be resting below.
Feinstein: How did this series begin?
Whitmore: I started taking as many road trips and day trips as I could muster on my weekends and PTO days for the last few years documenting the random decay and left behind objects that attracted me on the way. Mainly as a personal escape, an excuse to push me to take pictures.
Some backstory – growing up in Nevada, I spent a lot of time in the desert with my family – my parents would load up my grandfathers beat up powder blue pickup truck with my sister, myself, and four of my cousins and haul us out to camp in Gold Butte Nevada every spring break for a week. It is where I felt most at home and connected to my surroundings (even to this day), but around the time I was in middle school, we stopped making those trips because various reasons and I lost track of it.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started to recognize and process what an impact the desert and those experiences had on my state of happiness and life. Concurrently I was coming into a time in my life in which I was hitting a stride with my personal and professional life as a photographer and made a point to start exploring and in turn reconnecting with the desert landscape as much as possible.
I was approached by Jerry Schefcik, Director and Curator for Donna Beam Fine Art & UNLV (University of Nevada Las Vegas) Galleries and encouraged by Alisha Kerlin, Interim Director of the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art to propose an exhibition for the space. Motivated by the current political state and a series of emotional events in my personal life, There Is No Right Time was created in response.
Feinstein: Can you elaborate on how the US political landscape ties into this work?
Whitmore: The sense of disparity and isolation I have felt during this time greatly influenced and allowed this work to be created. I am proud to be born and raised in Las Vegas, I am proud to be an American citizen, but I am not proud of the current president and what he is representing.
The divisions and hatred that is being unearthed and allowed to resurface are hard to ignore. There is an image in the series of satellite dishes taken in Needles, California. That was one of the first images I started analyzing when compiling this series. I was thinking about the fact that everyone is being watched and so invested in their online personas that they are forgetting to see each other as individuals, we are existing, but not seeing each other.
Feinstein: Did you see this play out while you were making the work?
About a week before my exhibition opened to the public on October 1, 2017, the deadliest mass shooting committed by an individual in the United States occurred on the Las Vegas Strip leaving 58 people dead and 851 injured. This series was created prior to such events, but I could not help but feel an even greater sense of despair and timing when this all occurred. The title “There Is No Right Time” kept manifesting in my head, as a result of all the events and a couple of personal life experiences that were happening concurrently which kept driving home the fact that no matter how hard we try, or plan, or manipulate a situation, there is never a right time.
Feinstein: You mention personal life experiences as well. How have they played into this?
Whitmore: My personal life often impacts the work I am creating; like most artists I know. During the time of the election, various family and acquaintances voted for President Trump. I accept their right to do so, but still it is hard for me to reconcile and fully understand the reasons they chose to do so. I started to feel a disconnect happening and when entering debate about such topics, realized we were not seeing eye to eye.
I am a queer woman, with friends and allies spanning diverse backgrounds. Every day we accept and support one another – a great sense of community and encouragement comes from this. Living in this current political state in which divisions are being projected and heightened, it is important to continue to listen and try to understand each other. Themes of death, happiness, fear, and a false sense of invincibility are constantly occurring in daily life, this series started with self-reflection and recognizing the unconscious emotions I had been feeling, but trying to avoid.
Feinstein: In your statement, you mention "unintentional vestiges of fading beliefs in order to trace a pantheon of contested principles that reflect romantic notions of the American West." Can you break this down for me?
Whitmore: The work tackles very traditional Western images but tries to present them with a new perspective. As I made my trips into the desert, I was attracted to the idea that all the locales, far and few in-between, had similar principles. The sun burns embedded on the surface of people’s skin matched the glistening sand, and all the towns had one thing in common, a sense of isolation and freedom. A person can escape to the desert and create something entirely their own on a parcel of land.
Feinstein: Your statement also hints at a lineage to classic photographers of the American West, which were fairly straightforward, but many of your pictures are a bit more raw, even sculptural.
Whitmore: My main interest focuses on photography and sculpture/installation – in particular, the overlap between both practices – the way a photograph can be created and modified to be presented in untraditional ways, and the built-up facades in which one can create. My images are often discussing themes of memory, existence and the trace mankind leaves behind when removed from the context of urban surroundings.
I often feel detached from my surroundings and tying back into my fascination of sci-fi/mystery am highly attracted to the idea of worms holes, time ripples or continuums, and the notion that there is something more to life then just meets the eye. I try to express an otherworldly fascination, capturing energies and moments in time that might never occur again. Anybody can use a camera, point it, and make an image. What is more important to me is the intention behind it and creating something that is inherently connected to the taker. It is a mutual act and understanding, between the creator and subject.
One thing that always occurs in a desert movie, story or legend is the idea of seeing a mirage. A mirage can be defined as an optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions, a made up mirror in which distant objects can be perceived to be seen. The allurement that something exists and is perceived to be tangible, even when it is just smoke and mirrors. Your mind is playing tricks and manipulating reality, that thinking greatly influences how I create moments and document them.
Feinstein: Do you notice any differences between popular representation and perception by outsiders, and that of natives like yourself?
Whitmore: Most of the time, the people you encounter off and alone in the desert are of a different mindset than those you find clacking on the concrete in a city. There is an unhinged sensibility, pull your bootstraps up, shoot from the hip, Annie Oakley gun slinging sweat dripping get the job done no matter what the cost persona. This became a point of interest for me, as a queer woman who has grown up in the west and around similar elements, I often feel on edge and aware that being alone in the desert comes with its own set of uncertainties. I feel a vast sense of privilege and freedom, being able to explore and get lost amongst the sand, however a sense of isolation because I can not fully connect with the people I encounter because we have a different set of values and morals leading us.
I have been greatly influenced by growing up in Las Vegas, Nevada and spending vast amounts of time creating work inspired by the surrounding deserts. My perception is influenced by the juxtaposition of a permanent environment always in flux and sudden notion of feeling completely alone even when surrounded by a sea of people. Often mistaken for a big city, Las Vegas is a small town built on ever-changing facades in which nothing is sacred or lasts. The memories of my childhood no longer exist within the realm of adulthood – all the while as the landscape is in a constant state of flux and decay. The fragility and uncertainty of this city have enhanced my desire towards using a camera to capture images or moments in time that may not occur again.
Feinstein: How do you see yourself approaching these ideas – this freedom – visually, when you're out making photographs?
Whitmore: For the image, “Right Place, Wrong Time” (Editor's note: lead image for this interview) I wanted to present a traditional landscape, but evoke the sense of the land looking back. Being out in the desert, alone in silence, you start to hear and be aware of everything. The way the earth cracks beneath your feet, the breeze shifting and altering the landscape. It’s as almost for a moment, you can see a shift in time. I ended up using a crystal prism to create the effect in camera. Almost as if the image of the actual landscape is corrupting right in front of you. An image is never an accurate representation of what is occurring.
Feinstein: It's interesting to see the mix of images that feel spontaneous, and those that are a bit more constructed.
Whitmore: I often just hop in my car and decide to drive to a certain geographical location, without having any notion of what I will encounter along the way. Often attracted to abandoned, disregarded environments that still hold so much beauty and history.
Feinstein: Are there any specific images that speak to this, or the idea of "monuments" more than others?
Whitmore: A disregarded Corona beer bottle sinking into salt flats near Joshua tree, corroding over time becomes amplified in my image. A seemingly insignificant object is regarded as a monument, no longer overlooked. In my headspace, I was thinking about the debate of building a wall between the US & Mexico, how antiquated that set of beliefs are. There has never been a wall built in history that had a good purpose…i.e. the Berlin Wall and The Great Wall of China. Another instance was a roadside memorial of fake roses and a solar generated light is placed within the desert landscape by a stranger, by someone I have never met. Yet while I am traveling alone, in seemingly uninhabited landscapes, I come across these moments. The sheer act that someone took the time to create a shrine to a memory of someone else, all the while doing it in a way that speaks to the off the grid mentality using a solar generated light continues to create monuments.
Feinstein: Are you still working on the series?
Whitmore: I am continuing to make work for this series and hope to expand it, seeing how the work alters as the current state of politics changes within America. Similar to how it started, is similar to how it is continuing. I often shoot images without knowing the full intent of what they will be apart of. I have an inkling or notion, but it takes me time to start seeing how all the pieces fit together. I am still striving to explore the vast landscape of the desert and the discarded objects left behind. With that in mind, every image I take has the opportunity to fit within a concurrent series I am working on. This series is at a good point, however, throughout my travels I am still always looking for moments that can be captured to expand to it.