Photographer Marshall Scheuttle sheds light on the more chaotic side of Vegas — in a startlingly beautiful way
Yes, you know intellectually that there is a seedy side of Vegas, a hard, pitiless, transient, verge-of-despair aspect to this city. But have you seen it? Have you seen the gun on the altar, the blood on the sidewalk, the prostitute on the bed, the desert sunlight slanting into a charmless, joyless bedroom? Have you seen it up close, intimately?
Photographer Marshall Scheuttle has. And then some:
“I hid in the back of the car when they kidnapped him. I went along with them through the whole process. … He didn’t know I was there. I was in the room with him for about a half-hour with the door closed and the lights off, and I just got to arrange portraits and compositions of this guy duct-taped into a chair, blindfolded. He had earplugs in, so he couldn’t hear me. It was like being in college: Here, make a still life — but here’s a grown man duct-taped to a chair, who’s just been tasered.”
The image Scheuttle ultimately extracted from that experience roils with moral, ethical and aesthetic complication: In a documentary style that might be termed fluorescent vérité, the victim is seen through the half-open door of a cheap, soulless office suite, the kind that might’ve recently been abandoned by a barely legal telemarketing scheme. Bound to his chair, he’s utterly alone with whatever thoughts fill the head of a man so desperate for … something … that he’s consented to be roughly (but not too roughly) "kidnapped" by people whose business it was to pull off faux kidnappings. (That business is closed now.) Manhandled by forces he can’t see but has somehow agreed to, stranded in this spiritually vacant setting by his need for some extreme form of meaning, he has become a metaphor, the very picture of the modern human condition.
Now: Was Scheuttle’s presence in this scenario exploitative? Where in the vast moral savannah between right and wrong does this sort of thing fall? Does the fact that he’s making art from the situation alter the specific gravity of those questions?
These are some of the challenges presented by many of Scheuttle’s technically adept, often undeniably beautiful images — challenges not only for you, but for the photographer himself.
“It’s something I wrestle with a lot,” Scheuttle says. “Am I being sadistic, am I being masochistic, am I being misogynistic with the things that I’m showing? That’s always a very prominent voice in the back of my head.” Good to hear: A morally concerned voice in the back of your head is probably a prerequisite when you’ve set out to explore, in a large-scale, ongoing photo project, the anxious, insecure, sometimes touching, sometimes violent lives of people at the fringes of society. (Though, as we’ll see, that’s not all he’s up to.)
“It’s funny,” says VAST Space Projects gallerist Shannon McMackin, who met Scheuttle at the Velveteen Rabbit downtown, where he bartends — he overheard her talking about the arts scene and later emailed an introduction. “It’s photography, so it’s expected to be straightforward documentation,” she says, “but these aren’t that.” They’re more deeply layered. “I don’t get it all at first glance, and I like that.”
Fortress of escape
In person, Scheuttle doesn’t seem sadistic or exploitative. A friendly, articulate, generally low-key 29-year-old, tattooed arms dangling from his sleeveless shirts, Scheuttle came to Las Vegas from Buffalo, N.Y., a year ago, lugging an 8-by-10 camera and a determination to shoot the hell out of this city. He says he’d been making yearly trips here for about a decade, since he first visited as a 19-year-old roadie for the band It Dies Today. The city he saw then — a singular “fortress of escape” — captivated him. How weird to have a place you flee to in order to become something else. He’d known people who’ve interluded here but wouldn’t talk about what happened to them. Even more captivating! “I’ve been so enamored of the place that I’ve just been waiting for my chance to come out here and do a photographic series on it,” he says.
It’s not Scheuttle’s style to arrive on some artistic residency or fellowship. He plays things closer to the ground. One reason he toured with bands is that it took him around the country, in particular the Midwest, where he photographed young people “who were playing into specific strange archetypes of, I guess, traditional Americana mysticism.” Kids in the grip of religious ideologies that told them they were outcasts from a better place — “it’s very much a Garden of Eden parable,” he says of Borderlands, the photo exhibit that eventually resulted from those travels. It appeared in 2013 at the prestigious Contemporary Photography and Visual Arts Center in Buffalo.
The subject of his Vegas work was essentially dictated by the manner in which he came here — “to just live it out,” he says, uprooting his whole life and bringing it here. He arrived with no real plan, just like every other inbound transient.
“My headspace those first few months was pretty isolated,” he recalls. “I remember sitting outside somewhere in Vegas, drinking a bottle of Scotch and staring off into the middle distance, and I was like, Well, I guess this whole Kerouac thing is happening.”
And so the way he lived drove his project. He naturally gravitated toward people of a disposition similar to his. People in marginal (snap), often vulnerable (snap) or tenuously legal (snap) circumstances. “A lot of the work deals with my experience coming to the city as a transient, and the things I’m experiencing and seeing.”
In an odd way, his vibe — the tattoos, the gonzo commitment to his work — breaks the ice with potential subjects. “They see me and how I look, and I’m almost as much of a character to them as they are an interesting subject to me.” Once people see him as a particular person with a story of his own, they tend to want to share something of themselves — even if they’re running a fake-kidnapping business. “Access is given to me a lot of times very quickly when they understand that I’m just as crazy in what I do.”
His other side
Here’s Scheuttle popping out of the “underbelly photographer” pigeonhole we’ve just put him into:
“I drove up and down the street for about two weeks, different times of day, and came to the conclusion that there was no way to shoot it except to stand in the middle of the street, at” — indicating the light level in the photo — “this time of day.”
He’s talking about photographing Luxor. That’s right: overexposed, over-mediated, nothing-fringe-about-it Luxor, that visual cliché, about which there can’t be much left to say. Except that it’s actually sort of a fascinating-looking, meaning-rich building. In his photograph, Scheuttle has recused the pyramid from its aura of Strip glamour by shooting it in daylight, from an adjacent neighborhood. From, to be perfectly accurate, the middle of the street, at 6 a.m.
“I made one of the bartenders I work with stand in the middle of the street with a cone to keep taxis from hitting me,” he says with a laugh. In his image, Luxor rises above the humdrum box homes of the middle class with a formal visual rigor; the composition is more solid than Luxor’s foundation. This is Scheuttle’s serious art-school training at work (Purchase College, SUNY); he’s not just some guy freed by the simplicity of digital-camera technology to call himself a photographer. (An 8-by-10 camera is a righteous tool.) “I could have done it in a more zany way,” he says of Luxor, “but to do it in a more formal way is somehow more powerful.” Nothing underbelly about this.
Shall we allow him even farther out of the pigeonhole?
Along with visions of the Sin City demimonde — a “protection altar” with a gun on it; a scarily large splash of blood on a sidewalk; a ruined mattress from an abandoned brothel (yes, that’s a romance novel sitting in the middle of it) — he’s taken deep-focus shots of nearby desert mountainscapes, some wreathed in mist, their surfaces corrugated by erosion. That is, old-school landscapes.
[Hear More: Meet a photographer who captures mining booms and busts on “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”]
If Scheuttle didn’t know exactly what idea would guide his art when he got here, he does now (McMackin jokingly calls it “the Marshall Plan”). In whatever final form this project takes, gallery show or maybe a book, he intends to pair the landscapes with some of his fringe-culture portraits and still lives, so that each one’s very different expressions of beauty and chaos mingle — the geological-scale turmoil of the landscapes poised against the many varieties of human narrative. “It’s meant to play into this idea that it’s all kinda connected together,” he says, “chaos on top of chaos, if you will.” It’s a large-format vision. He figures he’s got about half of what he needs, which means more months of wandering the city, hauling the cumbersome 8-by-10 everywhere he goes, just in case. It’s not a prospect that distresses him.
At press time, McMackin planned to include three suites of Scheuttle’s work in VAST’s portion of the art program at the Life is Beautiful festival: “All from a project on the American West and its cinematic iterations,” she says, “but done freshly, in a big way.
“I’m so glad he packed up his things and came here,” she adds. “I can’t wait for people to see Marshall’s work so I have more people to engage and look deeper into it with.”