Historical Society reception and exhibit focus on rare photographs of inside 1970s and ’80s Reno casinos

Photographing the inside of 1970s and '80s casino was no easy shot, but that did not keep Reno artist Jan Aphelin from snapping some rare subject matter. Aphelin's images are on rare display in the exhibit “Black and White Risk,” at the Nevada Historical Society, beginning with a reception and visit with the artist from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15.

“The photographs are exceedingly unusual, if not unique, in that Nevada’s casinos banned photographs inside their establishments,” said Lee Brumbaugh, curator of photography for the society.

Beyond the rarity of their subject matter, Aphelin’s photographs are also a major contribution to fine-arts photography in Nevada. Taken quickly to avoid detection and to capture the fleeting action, her images might at first seem to be personal snapshots but photographers and historians more easily recognize her work as a major example of the “Decisive Moment” school of photography first associated with the famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, during the 1940s and 1950s.  American photographers of the 1970s and early 1980s applied this imaging model to the grittier aspects of American life. 

“These photographers, such as Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, were often termed 'street photographers', although their subjects were by no means limited to streets or sidewalks,” Brumbaugh said.

Brumbaugh said the tradition of documentary, fine-arts photography was inspired by a combination of the action orientation of news photography and the personal perspective of snapshot photography, made possible by the introduction of hand-held, roll-film cameras by George Eastman (Kodak) in 1888. “In her photographs, Jan Aphelin uniformly finds the right subject at just the right point in time.”

Aphelin's photographs let the viewer enter the world of the casino, showcasing the people who work in the clubs, walk the streets and play the games. The exhibition explores how the casino became a substitute for the dullness of daily routine and provided the gambler with an alternate reality. Many of the images are also intimate portraits of her friends and associates, and people she saw daily during a lifetime of participation in the gambling culture. Other photographs capture scenes in which the glamorous portrayal of gaming is contrasted with harsher realities.  Two consummate examples show a young, glamorous woman playing slots while her small son sits by himself and falls asleep in a hard wooden chair.

Aphelin said she especially hopes that her former co-workers and friends will have a chance to see the photographs and that her images delineate a very specific and important point of time during Reno's gambling heyday.  Her portraits of casino workers and “street people” present a more positive view of the human coping capacity in a less than perfect world, she said. 

The exhibit runs through April 30.  The reception is free.  For more information about the Nevada Historical Society, go to www.museums.nevadaculture.org then choose the Historical Society option. The Society is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 1650 N. Virginia St., and closed on some Saturdays for UNR home games.  Free parking passes are available inside. Regular admission is $5 for adults, and free for members or ages 17 and younger.  For information, call (775) 688-1191.

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