When we think of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, clichéd images come to mind such as Elvis impersonators, showgirls, tough-looking mobsters and lounge lizard entertainers. Many of these images have been used in countless films and photo essays. But in Chicago photographer Jay Wolke’s latest photography book, Same Dream Another Time, he shows us a different view of Las Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City. Wolke instead focuses on the people who live and work in these cities as well as the tourists, capturing intimate moments that allow us to peek into their lives. These are photos that he shot in the 1980s and ’90s, during a time before Las Vegas marketed itself as a family destination. It was also an era when Las Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City were the only places in the U.S. where people could legally gamble.
When looking at the photographs, one can feel a sense of isolation among some of the gamblers despite the fact that they are gambling in bright and colorful settings — in fact these gaudy settings only seem to amplify their lonely condition. Also worth noting are the expressions of the gamblers— with their steely concentration and stoic bearing, we aren’t sure if luck is on their side or if they are one step away from becoming homeless. There are also the bleak shots of people such as a forlorn-looking woman who seems to be pondering her luckless plight as she sits cross-legged outside of her motel room and a shirtless man surrounded by worn furniture in his room in Reno.
There are images of the absurd such as a man wearing a tattered towel as a cape while he stands in a parking lot looking like some new age messiah. There is also a photo of a white chapel with a sign that proudly advertises “Dynasty’s Joan Collins Was Married Here!” And there is a shot of a smiling Robert Goulet sitting behind the wheel in his large car as fans surround him — unlike most celebrities who avoid this kind of suffocating attention, Goulet with his wide smile seems to relish the adulation.
There are also a few photographs on the Miss America theme. One picture shows Miss America standing on a float in Atlantic City — with her frozen smile and tiara she seems intent on creating the illusion that she is indeed royalty. Another shot shows a beaming Debbye Turner who has just won the Miss America pageant and is surrounded by people who have rushed the stage to share in her magical moment. The most interesting shot on this Miss America theme is of a girl who waits with nervous anticipation for an autograph from a Miss America contestant while the girl’s mother stands to the side with a joyous expression as if she can’t believe her daughter’s good fortune of getting an autograph.
Wolke also captures the labor force in these cities such as the construction workers laboring at various sites, dealers taking a cigarette break, and a shoe salesman (looking like a character from a John Waters film) who leisurely smokes a cigarette in front of a shoe store. These images give us a perspective that these gambling centers don’t exist merely as tourist destinations, but are also places where people work and live. The struggle to survive in these cities is captured with a powerful image of homeless people who are lined up to receive a free lunch.
Wolke also creates compelling images of expansive western skies that act as a backdrop for the dreary-looking motels as well as the shimmering hi-rise hotels.
The photos in Same Dream Another Time capture people in an intimate manner, telling their stories without reducing them to mere caricatures. Wolke avoids the melodramatic and the sensational. He allows a story to unfold through his photos by capturing typical moments of the gamblers and the people who live in these cities.
Wolke has published three other books of his photography — All Around the House: Photographs of American-Jewish Communal Life; Along the Divide: Photographs of the Dan Ryan Expressway; and Architecture of Resignation: Photographs from the Mezzogiorno.
Wolke lives and works in Chicago. He has taught photography and art at various universities since 1981, including the IIT Institute of Design. He now teaches at Columbia College. He has had solo exhibitions in the U.S. and his photographs are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Same Dream Another Time is published by Kehrer Verlag, retail price ranges from $31.45 to $50.00 at various bookstores and online bookseller sites. Published in 2017, it’s 9.8 x 11.8 inches, hardcover and 135 pages.