Seducing Las Vegas

In his new book, Strip Search, photographer Albert Watson gets our city to show its range of personalities

Albert Watson and I have two things in common: We both love Las Vegas and we both love strippers.

But that’s where our similarities diverge. While I’m the editor of a local lifestyle magazine (944), the Scottish-born Watson, blind in one eye from birth, is a famous fashion photographer. He’s shot more than 100 covers of Vogue, dozens of covers for Rolling Stone, and pretty much every important person and celebrity over the last 40 years. He’s a commercial and an artistic success—everything that good photographers aspire to be. The industry magazine Photo District News named him one of the 20 most influential photographers of all time.

Departing from his 9-to-5, Watson spent roughly five years exploring Las Vegas with his large-format, nondigital camera, rambling up and down its dusty roads, in and out of its seedy motels, dabbling in its joyous moments, casting shadows in its neon. As part of my 9-to-5, I spent the last five years on the opposite side of the desk, commissioning photographers to capture the nuances of the city and its people.

In his new book, Strip Search (PQ Blackwell, $195), Watson encapsulates the luxury, absurdity, perversion and eccentricities of Las Vegas in “the aughts.” The two-volume set includes more than 250 pictures of landscapes, people and places.

What I learned from the photos in Watson’s book is that while anyone can take a picture of Las Vegas, I have seen few photographers truly capture Las Vegas: its unapologetic irony, its complete randomness and its many, often creepy and somewhat disturbing affectations. Watson’s Vegas isn’t for everyone, but it is for me: strippers, dominatrices and stilettos. Oh, and Prada.

“I first came to Las Vegas in 1971 to photograph country-western singer Roy Clark,” he says at the top of our conversation. “Of course, Vegas wasn’t quite as grand as it is now, but it was still fabulous. When you come from a village in Scotland, like I do, I guess one neon light is going to be quite glamorous.”

His first impression of Las Vegas as trashy but not tacky was a lasting one. “The weird thing is that, in Vegas, everything is always so well done. So there’s a quality side of Vegas. And there’s a flash to Vegas. It is flashy. But Vegas is seduction, not only in the sexual sense but also in the visual sense.”

And you can see that dynamic in his photos, the way he lovingly seduces his subjects into revealing themselves. For example, an image of Karen Rader of Crazy Girls depicts a beautiful but melancholy dancer on an empty stage, baring her breasts and her vulnerability.

To understand Strip Search is to identify where Watson was creatively when he started the project. “I had just finished a book on the country of Morocco for the king,” he says. “It was very traditional and classic. And after I finished that, I was looking for something that was more decadent and more vibrant visually so that’s why I thought Vegas was going to be perfect.”

Armed with photo gear and assistants, he made the first in a series of trips here from his studio in New York. “I spent about 15 weeks in Las Vegas. … We did 14-hour days. The longest I did that for was 10 days straight. I would have to be careful because after a while I would burn people out.”

Along the way he met faces and saw places. He and his crew would simply walk up and ask, Hey, do you mind being photographed? “If someone [refused], then that was the end of it.”

If Strip Search has a main character, it would be a young dominatrix named Breaunna.

“She turned out to be the most interesting person I met in Vegas. I loved the way she looked. She was a chameleon. The first night I saw her she had kind of a Bettie Page hair-do and she had on leopard-print jumpsuit on with high-heel boots. I photographed her. I thought, Wow, she almost moves like a very good model out of New York.

“The following night somebody touched my arm in another casino and said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ I turned around and there was what appeared to be an Asian girl with a platinum wig on and a little short skirt with very sexy high heels. It was her. After that I decided to come back to Vegas and allocate three and half days to just her. When you go over the film she never misses a frame.”

Breaunna introduced him to some of her friends, too: “female strippers and male strippers and so on.”

Some of the most poignant imagery in the book is its dramatic transitions from city landscapes to the darkness of our exotic world. The photos are gritty and the paper stock is rougher. It makes me feel as if I am being led into a back room of sorts.

And since I have spent some time at Sapphire on a Friday night, I admitted to Watson that when I first picked up the book, I scanned it to see if he had photographed anyone I know. Which led me to ask, who is this book for, exactly?

“I actually thought that the book itself in Las Vegas might be quite a tough sale because of the kind of people that come through Vegas,” he says. “They don’t want a book with that kind of viewpoint. But I thought maybe the people that are more artistic in Vegas, you know … I know a few Cirque du Soleil performers, and they were very excited about the book.”

There’s a third similarity I didn’t realize. Apparently Watson and I also share some Cirque du Soleil performer friends.

What else can you say but, “Vegas is a small town. Gotta love it.”

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