Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, photographer Mikayla Whitmore makes images of the desert oasis far from the Hollywood clichés you might expect. Beyond the glitz and glimmer, she focuses on the less-covered terrain. In her personal work, the desert is a backdrop for science fiction fantasies, often incorporating mirrors, double exposures and the mystical qualities of light.
Meanwhile, her editorial and commercial photography, with clients including ESPN, VICE, and Buzzfeed News covers everything from local “pro taco, anti-Trump” rallies to the loyal, dedicated fans of the ice hockey team The Las Vegas Golden Knights.
Luupe photographer Felicia Perretti spoke with Whitmore to learn more.
Felicia Perretti: What was the deciding factor to transition from working as a staff photographer to freelance?
Mikayla Whitmore: My overall happiness in day to day life. I felt undervalued in my position and was not learning or progressing within my field. The media, arts, and specifically photo industry is such a tumultuous landscape. There was not a slew of jobs or opportunities at the time. I knew I had to take a chance on myself and start to believe in my creative power if I wanted others to do the same.
I was contemplating the idea for a long time and took a while to work up the courage and savings before I felt ready to take the leap. It was heightened as my father was retiring from working in Macau SAR (China) for 12 years and returning to Las Vegas. So I ended up quitting my job and going to visit my dad and work in the area for about five weeks before coming back and completely freaking out about how I was actually going to pull this off.
Fast forward almost two years later and I am still freaking out from time to time – but I’m pretty happy otherwise. I’m still trying to create images I want to see and imagine others do too.
Perretti: Were you born and raised in Las Vegas? What can you tell us about the area beyond its image as a “casino town?”
Whitmore: I was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Women’s Hospital in the 1980s, which since has been turned into a parking lot. A lot of my family worked various jobs in casinos throughout the Strip and downtown and I have a lot of strange yet fond memories of growing up here.
Las Vegas is trending hard these days. The progressive city is going through a population boom, gaining a slew of national sports teams, legalized marijuana, and even have plans for a large scale art museum. The strangeness and quirkiness which make this city so special is quickly being gobbled up and commercialized, and often the city doesn’t do a great job at preserving or documenting the unique history and landmarks. Not to say that all the attention goes without its benefits. It is also putting a wider spotlight on the city and creating new opportunities for its inhabitants.
I think visitors should know the entire area is really unique and has a rich history beyond the limits of the Strip. And beyond the city is an even more gorgeous desert.
Oh yeah, and the sunsets are pretty epic.
Perretti: You use mirrors throughout your portfolio. What draws you to them?
Whitmore: A large part of my work is influenced by growing up in Las Vegas and science fiction. The over the top, garishly glitzy facades, neon laced lighting, and desert backdrop. The mirror is such a versatile surface and a contributing asset to my work. It can be used in very simple ways and can be so impactful, creating mind-bending mirages in the studio or within natural environments. It acts as another tool to shape and manipulate light and has a very magical quality that can transport its viewers and really mesmerizes me.
Growing up in Vegas, the design of casino interiors in the 80s and early 90s was glorious on epic proportions. A handful of older casino legends and hangouts often were often covered floor to ceiling in mirrors and glitter caked facades, like the Riviera, Peppermill, and even our own McCarran Airport. Places like those feel like home.
Perretti: When putting together the projects do you ever shoot the work first then find the story behind them or does the concept come first?
Whitmore: It really interchanges for me. I often conduct test shoots and take images as sketches to visualize new ideas, surfaces, and materials I want to explore with – inturn influencing the realm of what I can physically create and spurs new concepts for images or series I make in the future.
As of late, I have been trying to create – just for the sake of creating – and allow the narrative to have time to develop naturally. With that said, I always have a sketchbook or list in my mind of ideas and jumping-off points for series or directions I want to head in the future. I am often looking at all the images I take whether found or created in the studio and how they interact with each other and any of the given themes I have running through my brain.
Perretti: What drew you to do installations outside traditional photography projects?
Whitmore: It’s probably similar to why I prefer to create and construct my subject matter in real life and in-camera instead of Photoshop.
Most of my practice is observing the characteristics of light and how it influences its surroundings, normally resulting in the images I create. But there are instances and projects that spark an investigation and result in installations because it better fit the purpose. I am interested in trying to create spaces with as much impact in real-time as those frozen moments of my images.
I often view the camera as an extension and tool to the ideas I want to produce.
Perretti: Was “Bearded and Shucked” assigned to you or were you approached to cover this?
Whitmore: Neither, actually. The event was created in majority by artist and friend Aaron Sheppard – once I heard about it I knew it was something I wanted to be involved with and reached out. Similar to most freelancers, I don’t always get paid to cover the subject matter I want to see and am often trying to shoot and practice techniques on friends and subjects in my life who also benefit from having documentation of their creative ventures.
I think it is important to help each other out along the way as creatives and often try to help document my friends’ work as artists who might not as easily be able to as I could. After the event, I also pitched it to a few publications and of course always try to find a compatible platform to help feature the work if it makes sense.
At the time, I was trying to make an effort to create images genuine to the desert, the souls inhabiting it, and documenting the lives around me. We can’t wait to be given opportunities but have to continually be learning and creating our own.
Perretti: Does your work involve any manipulation in post-production or do you set the scene with props and lens effects?
Whitmore: Most of my photography projects to date involve very little Photoshop manipulation – with all the effects being created in-camera using mostly color gels, filters, and optical illusions. I mainly use Adobe Lightroom to remove dust and tone. I think it is super amazing when creators use Photoshop to create and the possibilities are endless – but I just never fully learned or integrated it into my process.
I enjoy the process of physically creating something and then using a camera as another tool to help express it. I also really love not having to rely on a computer program to influence the topography of my photograph – it helps maintain a type of sincerity or genuineness in spite of the often disingenuous quality of images.
Perretti: Any exciting projects coming up in 2020?
I have a few ideas for new projects to start tackling. I currently am in a self-induced renaissance trying to take some time to explore some new techniques and slowly accruing some specific gear to prepare for future work.
In the meantime, I’m also working on a three-person show at La Matadora in Joshua Tree in February and have a collaborative mirror installation with artist Mary Sabo and Karin Quindo Miller on display at the Goldwell Bullfrog Biannual in Rhyolite Nevada October 25-27.