The Alicia Motel on Fremont Street isn’t much to look at with the naked eye in broad daylight. It’s just another seedy, crumbling, inexpensive respite in downtown Las Vegas. But in Dr. Gregory Robinson’s new exhibit, Vegas From the Hip, an image of the Alicia possesses the alluring qualities of a cherished family photograph kept for years in an old scrapbook—overexposed, tinged with nostalgia, mystery-flecked. Indeed, the photo seems as if it could have been snapped at any point between 1963 (the advent of the Polaroid) and the late ’90s (at which point digital cameras began to get more popular). This is exactly the effect Robinson, a professor of English at Nevada State College, sought to achieve with the show he recently curated.
Robinson has always been interested in alternative and underground movements, particularly those in Vegas. He’s a Bonanza High School graduate who used to frequent the Elks Lodge back when it served as an all-ages punk-rock venue, and he claims to be utterly fascinated by those little scenes in Vegas where creativity runs rampant, unedited.
“You can just put something together here without fear of being criticized,” he says. “There’s a sense of freedom here. For instance, I don’t have any professional authority on the subject of photography, but here I am putting together a show.”
Vegas From the Hip is also the first official and open-to-the-public art show to take place at the 9-year-old Nevada State College. It’s one that blends the future and the past in compelling fashion, collecting 99 images of downtown Vegas—mostly haunting images of motels and other structures—all shot with iPhones and the Hipstamatic app.
Sounds great, right? But some of you might be scratching your heads. Hipstamatic?
It was little more than a footnote in commercial photographic history. But now the legacy expands thanks to a popular iPhone app introduced last year. The story goes like this: In the summer of 1984, Bruce and Winston Dorbowski, two brothers from Wisconsin, were driving back from just having signed a building lease. In the facility, they planned to mass-produce a moneymaker—cameras made completely of plastic, right down to the lens. Inspired by the Kodak Instamatic, the Dorbowski Bros. made a couple hundred Hipstamatic 100s, selling them at $10 a pop. The Hipstamatic 100 wasn’t designed as disposable, but it certainly predates the era of bargain-bin shooters. Indeed, the camera likely would have triumphed had the brothers not perished in a car wreck caused by a drunk driver.
Twenty-five years later, two Minnesota Web developers stumbled upon a memorial site to the Dorbowski Bros. and their short-lived camera. In the fall of 2009, the Hipstamatic 110 was born as an iPhone app. The app, still one of the top five photo apps in the market, does everything the little plastic camera could do—most notably, creating a dream-like blurriness at the edges of each image, and allowing for an odd, inconsistent light to seep in and suggest a sense of “found-image” spontaneity. Instead of high-tech precision, which the iPhone can give you, the app offers a nostalgic aura “reminiscent of old photos found in your grandmother’s attic.”
“With this app, you can shoot and re-shoot the same image from the same angle and every time it will come out differently,” Robinson says. “I think the results are pretty interesting, because what you’re doing is—and the irony is—taking pictures in a digital medium meant to replicate analog snapshots.”
Robinson, an iPhone user, says the Hipstamatic appeals to him for the same reason he enjoys studying the Lomography (named after the affordable Russian camera), or low-tech, movement. Robinson, who has taught film and literature since 2008, is so interested in low-tech that he’s even working on a book about silent-film intertitles and the way text was employed to convey information in movies.
To create Vegas From the Hip, Robinson invited photographers via the Hipstamatic Faceboook fan page to submit images. He received 250, whittling down the best ones into 99 (“It sounds like a fun number,” he explains) 7-by-7-inch images, which he then mounted in tight rows on some wall space in the Nevada State College Library—with the help of a small $588 jackpot grant from the Nevada Arts Council.
“The money from the grant helped to pay for the photo developing, the exhibit installation, promotional materials and a little food for the reception.”
“It’s funny how these things work out,” he says. “I expected more locals to provide images, but there were very few. The majority of contributors are people from places like California and England, and they took them specifically for this show.”
Interestingly, the iPhone app isn’t something you can apply after taking an image. You have to snap it.
“You can tell a fake, and there were a few fakes,” Robinson confirms.
“However the app allows you to use different films and lenses. The art, if you will, comes from combining the two. There’s an aesthetic of spontaneity that’s really remarkable.”