Victoria Scott, Postcards from the End of the World (Carrara Media), 92 pp. Paperback, $24.99.
In the spring of 2020, Las Vegas photographer Aaron Mayes set out to snap pictures of his city in odd circumstances: the Covid-19 pandemic had resulted in temporary closures of all casinos, bars, and restaurants in Nevada, and the Strip—normally a 24/7 hotspot—was thus eerily empty in the middle of the day. Titling his series “Lost Vegas,” Mayes captured a creepy scene, a “free-market super-scape painted with a post-apocalyptic brush.”
The American West has always flirted with the prospect of sudden and rapid desertion. Civic endeavors out here are mercurial. Dating from the gold and silver rushes of the nineteenth century, enterprises in the region have often been characterized by boom-and-bust cycles that have featured tremendous prosperity followed by apocalyptic eradication. The “ghost town” is a familiar type.
That propensity for depopulation is on display in Victoria Scott’s Postcards from the End of the World, which offers 43 photos of a West bereft of human beings. Presented as a series of postcards, each photo is signed by Kate and addressed to Lily. Kate, in Scott’s fictional conceit, begins traveling by truck across a smoky and mountainous terrain (possibly Idaho, where Scott resides) scorched by intense wildfires and/or firebombs during a cataclysmic war. Crossing the state line into Nevada and avoiding major towns and highways, Kate finds everything quiet and empty, only static on the radio. Things have changed in the years since “the Before”: “All that’s left,” she writes, “are concrete and steel whose purpose left with the people that built them.”
The point of the trip is to see Emma, who has a stash of medication for Kate and Lily. Kate finds the medication but no Emma—no anyone. Failing to encounter a single human being in Nevada, Kate starts to lose it. She keeps driving West, on I-80, heading toward the coast, needing to prove to herself that she is not alone. Eventually it becomes clear that Kate is not going home and that there may not be a Lily waiting there for her anyway. Maybe Kate is the last person on earth.
Scott’s photographic eye is drawn to ruins—crumbling buildings, busted up shacks, “husks of homes and abandoned cars.” (Another of Scott’s art projects involves turning Hot Wheels cars into rusted out jalopies.) A shot of an old gas station, swept by gravel, advertising sundries and ice cream, stands out. When was it last serviceable? How long has it been there? It’s hard to say. And it’s easy to imagine a Western landscape as a post-apocalyptic setting, as nature ever so slowly reclaims the roads and edifices. Power lines remain, but only for a bit. Rocks last a lot longer than people.
“Something about Nevada above all other states speaks to me,” Scott has written. In 2021, Scott took a six-month van trip across the American West and authored a 17-part photo-essay series, “The Vanscontinental Express,” for The Drive, an online publication dedicated to automotive culture. The vast open spaces here are liberating. Scott, who identifies as “a trans woman doing my best to be an advocate for queer rights,” sees in the West a zone of freedom and opportunity.
But as Postcards from the End of the World makes clear, the beauty of a building rising up amid sprawling isolation can also be vaguely threatening, an Ozymandias commanding despair in the face of such mighty works. A postcard is a form of reaching out to someone, trying to forge a connection. But the cards here represent a one-way correspondence. The landscape becomes even more alien when the detritus of human beings is unaccompanied by human forms. “I never realized how strange our world looked once the purpose of our creations was gone,” Kate remarks. Is it all just trash?
Scott, whose work can be found on various platforms, including Twitter and Instagram, uses her photography to create a brief sense of stability within an environment of collapse. While the narrative of Postcards is spooky, the images are ultimately serene. The sun is shining, the skies are blue, and the decaying houses are sitting peacefully in the warm air of the desert morning.