They’re around 150 miles from one another and their combined populations don’t quite reach 2,000, but Baker, California, and Beatty, Nevada, each claim to be the gateway to Death Valley.
During a 2009 drive to a photo shoot in Las Vegas, Pamela Littky discovered Baker. A few months later she stumbled upon Beatty. She would spend the next four years documenting the two tight-knit communities for a series that became the book Vacancy, published last month by Kehrer.
Littky is known for her celebrity portraits of everyone from Jennifer Lawrence to Beck, but Vacancy allowed her the chance to sink her teeth into a project that interested her in a different way.
“I’ve always been curious to see the inner workings of the kind of town that most see only from the highway,” she wrote via email. “But those little pockets are filled with stories from families who have been there for generations, or of people who find their way there to disappear from the world. I felt a sense of a simple life that appeared to be wonderfully uncomplicated.”
Vacancy is made up of portraiture, documentary photography, and environmental landscapes. But Littky said the process of shooting the work wasn’t much different from her other projects since she shot it on film and used similar lighting techniques. She also made sure she had what also certainly works with her more high profiled clients: trust.
“Trust is everything, especially with a project like this,” she said. “I’ve found people in these types of small town communities typically are skeptical of outsiders, especially one showing up with a camera.”
“Slowly as I’d continue to go out there I’d meet more and more people in town. Once I could start referencing the names of others that I had already photographed, I believe that helped with my credibility in their eyes.”
Littky was constantly dropping off and editing film, so she had already earmarked her favorites when it came time to assemble the book. The series got its name because, Littky said, when she “began to assemble an edit for the book, I noticed a couple thematic similarities: one, that there were several images of empty vacant spaces (interior or exterior), and two, many of the subjects had a blank, vacant look about them.”
The most difficult part was leaving behind the subjects with whom she’d become very close. “There is an obvious difference between photographing real people versus a celebrity,” she said. “With a civilian, there is an inherent vulnerability to sit with a complete stranger and be photographed. I love to find the beauty in those unguarded moments with someone with very little pretense. I’ve always loved finding that common ground to connect with the subject so that something real and magical is revealed in the film.”