For the 10 year anniversary of the Great Recession, American photographer Ross Mantle was commissioned by The New York Times to photograph the town of North Las Vegas, the epicenter of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis in the United States. Through Mantle’s photographic eye, we are privy to a visual narrative that balances aesthetic positivity, lightness, and humor with heavier social and political themes.
The idea of the most recent iteration of the American Dream has long been entrenched in home ownership, and this fact played an integral role in the catastrophic collapse of the housing market in 2008. The American Dream is the belief system that if one works hard and plays by the rules, they may be afforded freedom of choice in how to live, with material success, social mobility, and life satisfaction through prosperity. First popularized by the writer James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America, its meaning continues to evolve as societal expectations do, however its original intention was rooted in equality more so than capitalism.
"The light and palette gave the feeling that this place lacked forgiveness and was perpetually unrelenting"
When the stock market and the housing market crashed in the United States, both events triggered worldwide economic repercussions and deep-rooted political discontent. In late 2018, The New York Times Business section published a special feature in recognition of the recession that ensued, focusing on one of the hardest-hit areas in the country. Entirely separate to the infamous, glamorous Las Vegas Strip, the fast-growing city of North Las Vegas is situated at the northern edge of the Las Vegas Valley. It is a young working-class town, and “feels far removed from what is understood of the Vegas Strip,” explains Mantle. “You can see the towers on the Strip from North Las Vegas but there’s sort of a mirage feeling to the view.” The town is home to a military base, a handful of casinos, retirement communities, industrial parks, and logistics centers. “Its outer edges extend to the fringe of the desert and it doesn’t seem like there’s anything to contain it and keep it from expanding to the base of the mountains north of the city,” he says.
The issues of North Las Vegas are more highly concentrated versions of the same issues affecting most of the United States.
The New York Times reports that when the global financial crisis happened, for this quiet town, the repercussions were unavoidable: considered one of the most overvalued markets in the country, nearly one in three homes went into foreclosure. “It was hit very hard at the time but in the decade since the crash, housing prices rebounded and the market stabilized,” explains Mantle. “The crash and rebound was a contained anecdote of the recession, and at the time there was some concern of another bubble. But the issues in the region of North Las Vegas seemed to be more highly concentrated versions of the same issues affecting most areas in the United States.”
Mantle graduated from university into the recession, and the photographic work that he has made in the years since then has largely responded to the crisis culturally, socially, and economically. “It continues to have a significant impact on the trajectory of my work, my process, and my thinking,” he says. “It’s far from ideal but given this experience, my own life growing up in the suburbs, and having spent some time in comparable landscapes, I could form an approach that looked at this narrative and city as symbolic of many other places and stories. The images were aesthetically specific to North Las Vegas and the narrative of this story, but the themes I had in mind were more universal.”
Despite matters of financial hardship and discrimination with regards to real estate and renting, there is a sense of warmth and optimism emitted from many of Mantle’s landscape, portrait, and still life images. It was an intentional move to depict this feeling in his work; the photographer aimed to portray a lightness and subtle absurdity against the broader socio-economic subtext. “In my work I try to make conscious attempts to subvert the prevailing aesthetic—darker themes, somber depictions, moodier tones, dramatic light.” In some images, the viewer can detect an almost facetious personification in the portrayal of a home; in others, children playing in empty streets elicits an innocent surrealism.
Mantle balances aesthetic positivity and humor with heavier social and political themes.
The natural brightness and dustiness of the Las Vegas Valley contrasts warm tones with the darker undercurrents of the narrative. “I leaned into the acute brightness of the desert and allowed that to be present in the images,” says Mantle. “I had the impression that nothing constructed there is sustainable, and there’s a brittleness in the texture of everything there. The light and palette provided the feeling that this place lacked forgiveness and was perpetually unrelenting. I felt it was an apt metaphor for the extremes of the boom and bust economic cycle of the city.”
Mantle found the landscape and infrastructure very alienating and disorienting. “I found its aesthetic monotony unsettling,” he says, “and I embraced that in the work. It was very hot and very sunny—it was August in the desert and day time temperatures were reaching 108°F (42°C). Working like that, especially walking through strip mall parking lots in the desert heat was a strange experience and shaped the feeling of the work.” The area encompasses a very isolated style of living: lots of gated communities, tall stucco walls, shades, and tinted windows on homes and vehicles. “A lot of it is out of necessity to keep light and heat out during the days, but it also felt very closed off,” he says. That seclusion coupled with the sprawl and heat that make pedestrians rare, spoke to a sense of desolation and loneliness amidst all the warmth and brightness. “The sun bleaches everything and it leaves an impression that nothing can survive there without constant renewal,” he says. “At its size and sprawl, in the climate that it’s in, it feels unsustainable.”
By definition, the patriotic ethos of the American Dream has long been argued over as to whether it is a myth or real, and accessible or inaccessible to all Americans. Today, the community of North Las Vegas is a shining example of reestablishment: companies have swelled with the creation of many jobs, and the housing market is booming once again. However like with many of the socio-economic issues that rage through the country, the recovery has been very unequal, and for many, the American Dream will continue to remain unachievable.