It's all about Place
Learning Las Vegas,
Portrait of a Northern
New Mexican Place
By Elizabeth Barlow Rogers
Publisher: Museum of NM Press
In her book, “Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History,” Elizabeth Barlow Rogers wrote, “Throughout the ages landscapes have reflected cosmological notions underlying one of humanity’s great imponderables: Where are we? How was the world created, and what is the place and fate of human beings within the context of space and time?” As the author of several works about the subject, Rogers is well prepared to delve into what makes a place distinctive.
Rogers, who has a background in art history and city planning is the president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies. A native of San Antonio, Texas, she has lived since 1964 in New York City, N.Y. and has received many accolades for her work and dedication. Among her many accomplishments, she is a writer and photographer. For people from a small town in northern New Mexico how she writes about place tells a story about life, culture and history. Why did she choose the small town as the subject of her book, “Learning Las Vegas, Portrait of a Northern Mew Mexican Place?”
“I wanted to look at the subject of place in a unique and special place. In Las Vegas people have strong feelings about their town. As a part time resident of Santa Fe and a photographer and writer, it seemed ideal for what I wanted to do. It was an assignment I gave myself. I took photos of things that go on, and I began talking to people. I realized the best way to write the book was through their voices.”
Rogers began taking photos and collecting information in 2007. What she found was a town in transition, past its glory days, and living in the struggle that comes when a local economy can’t sustain the next generation.
“I learned about the glory days by researching historical documents. At one time Las Vegas, with its vibrant economy, was one of the most important cities in the West,” she said. “I learned about Las Vegas today by talking to people.”
Rogers said that discovering the layers of identity for Las Vegas are like peeling an onion. “One person led me to another person, and that person led me to someone else. It helped me build the story over time. It needed that multi-year perspective to get a sense of how this place became what it is today.”
She had no outline to work from at the beginning, letting the book shape itself as she went along.
The book is beautifully constructed, with evocative photos and elegant prose, lots of white space, fonts slightly suggestive of another era. Rogers said she was deeply involved in the design and selection of photographs.
“I brought the book to the Museum of New Mexico Press because I know they have great production values and I have a lot of respect for David Skolkin. I worked closely with the editor and David as the book developed.”
In her selection of content, Rogers said she wanted most to convey the notion of what makes a place unique historically, geographically, and culturally.
“I would say the book has an anthropological slant,” she said. Given her concentration on the origin, historical behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of the area, this is a fitting statement.
Rogers said that the principal theme of the book is the meaning of place. She sought long and hard to understand Las Vegas as a place whose identity has developed and changed over time. Focusing her discerning photographer’s eye on the local scene and the architecture and people of Las Vegas helped her determine the shape the book would take. The chapters are defined along thematic lines, but within each you learn a lot more than the headings would imply. The book’s narrative structure came only after Rogers had spent hundreds of hours talking to Las Vegans from all walks of life.
“After talking to Jesus (Lopez, local attorney), and listening to the things he told me, I have a degree of insight into the way the city runs itself, the way Hispanics have felt disenfranchised, and how that has informed later history and the way (some) people continue to think and behave.”
Rogers has a way of writing, allowing the subject of the chapter to speak for him or herself, or in the case of actual place, itself, without injecting her own spin. All of her books are written with detail and poetic imagery, enhanced by striking photos. I asked her if her writing is influenced by her photographic art.
“The writing has to stand on its own, but I love the image itself. I want the writing and the photos to complement each other. I didn’t actually need them, and I wanted the text to independently tell the story. But I love photography, and feel that words and images together capture the essence of place better than either would alone.”
She said her biggest challenge in the whole project, was cutting out so many pictures. Of the several thousand she took, Rogers, her editor, and the book designer selected photos that most closely conveyed the special aspects of her story about Las Vegas as place. Not surprisingly, many of these were shot in the plaza when she attended fiestas, motorcycle rallies, weddings, and Fridays al Fresco and spent hours watching all the impromptu things that go on at the bandstand gazebo.
“In lots of ways you can consider the plaza to be the soul of the town,” she said.
“Learning Las Vegas, Portrait of a Northern New Mexican Place,” is considered to be a regional book. Rogers said she hopes it provides a sense of place compelling enough to interest the general reader outside of New Mexico. She also hopes its sociological and anthropological slant will increase its audience beyond the confines of landscape history, the field with which she has traditionally been associated.
The cover photo is of Bridge Street, an iconic image of Las Vegas photographed by many. Why did that photo among the thousands she had available end up on the cover?
“I thought the cover should be a West Las Vegas streetscape. In this particular photo the light was right, the composition was good, and to me it says a lot about Las Vegas as a place. So that’s the one
we all agreed on.
When asked if there was anything she would like to have included but didn’t have room for, Rogers laughed.
“Oh, yes, a lot of interesting things have happened since the book was finished. You might call me an Optic addict. Every time I read an interesting story and meet another interesting individual in its pages, I think to myself, “Darn! Why didn’t I get that in the book? But you have to stop somewhere.”
Rogers will be featured in upcoming events at which she will talk about “Learning Las Vegas, Portrait of a Northern New Mexican Place.” Look for her on Saturday, June 22, 2 p.m. at the New Mexico History Museum Auditorium where she will be participating in a panel discussion and book signing along with Elmo Baca, Frances Levine and Christopher Wilson. On Sunday, June 23 at 2 p.m., she will be at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande Blvd. NW, Albuquerque, N.M. On Saturday, June 29 at 2 p.m. Rogers is scheduled to be at Tome on the Range, 158 Bridge Street, Las Vegas, N.M., immediately followed by a reception sponsored by the Citizens Committee for Historic Preservation, at 116 Bridge Street.
This article also appears in Happenstance Magazine, published by Happenstance Publishing. For more information go to www.vandermeerbooks.com.