When she approached the door to Nevada’s Moonlite Bunny Ranch brothel, Yvonne Albinowski expected the worst.
“I was expecting them to say: ‘We’re not interested in anything like this. Get out of here,’ ” Albinowski recalled.
But as a professional photographer working on a project she was very passionate about, she remained determined.
“I just pushed myself and went up and I rang the buzzer,” she said. “The madam came out, and it was much easier than I thought it was going to be.”
Eventually, Albinowski was allowed inside to take photographs.
“It was great talking to the girls and hearing their personal stories and really getting kind of intimate with them — I mean, photographically,” she said, laughing.
The Carson City brothel was the final stop on Albinowski’s ambitious photographic journey across the Nevada portion of U.S. Route 50 — or as Life magazine dubbed it, “the loneliest road in America.”
The dusty ribbon of U.S. 50 crosses Nevada’s waistline, starting from Lake Tahoe and stretching about 400 miles east near Great Basin National Park.
When Life published its 1986 article on the highway, it “sort of inspired people to go and see what this route was all about,” Albinowski told CNN this week from her New York City office. Years later, when she saw the article, it inspired her. “I had to go out there and see who these people were.”
Albinowski calls her project “50 faces on US 50.”
At times, the road lived up to its reputation, like when Albinowski rolled into Austin, Nevada — population, 192. It was “snowing like crazy” at the time, but “I have to say that town was probably the loneliest town that I visited,” she said. “Maybe not so much something that I captured with my eyes, but the feeling that I got when I entered the town was really empty.”
She discovered, however, that most of the towns along the road “didn’t really feel all that lonely.” Instead, she found places full of life and camaraderie.
“In these small towns, there’s often one community center or one saloon in the whole town,” she said. “Nobody really has a choice but to go there. Then, a sense of community is born.”
As a portrait photographer, Albinowski said she’s looking to capture “a snippet” of someone’s true essence. “Being able to bring that out of someone is really what’s amazing about photography.”
She put that theory to the test at the Owl Club Bar and Steakhouse in Eureka, where Albinowski took a man’s portrait while he sipped on a glass of whisky.
“Sometimes I get a real sense inside that I really want to photograph this person,” she said. “I really had this amazing connection with him. When I first saw him, I didn’t know why, but there was just something about him that I needed to show in my photos.”
Later, the man whipped out his cell phone to show Albinowski photos of himself dressed as a woman.
“I said, ‘Oh what is this, Halloween?’ He said, ‘No, I’m a cross-dresser.’ And it was really great,” Albinowski said. “Everyone in town was very aware of his ‘hobby,’ as he called it. It felt really great that someone who I’d just met felt comfortable enough to discuss their most intimate interests with me.”
Along with the people along U.S. 50, Albinowsky also connected with the geography. In fact, the region’s breathtaking landscape transformed her original idea of the project.
At first, she planned to feature 50 faces of people she met along the way. Eventually, she chose to include images of the countryside as well. “I turned the word ‘face’ into a metaphor,” she said.
The intense hues of the entire experience blended into a theme.
“I love color. I had to show color,” she said. “The landscape, the mountains — everything was gorgeous. I feel like the palette of the interiors of these rustic-looking saloons was the same as some of the soft colors of the landscapes. So it all worked together. Black and white was never an option.”
- Thom Patterson, CNN