The remains of the day

American Flat Revisited

Ralph Phillips is intrigued by old places in states of decay, making American Flat a good target for his lens. He distorted the photos, such as in “Twilight Zone” seen here, to appear “surreal.”

Ralph Phillips is intrigued by old places in states of decay, making American Flat a good target for his lens. He distorted the photos, such as in “Twilight Zone” seen here, to appear “surreal.”

Photo By David Robert

The inconveniently dead have been tossed there. The mafia has conspired there. Motorcycle clubs have revved and roared there. At least that’s how some of the many stories go. A couple things about American Flat are certain: Cyanide was milled there in the early 1900s, and it’s now the personal, ever-changing canvas of local graffiti artists (some of them quite talented). This group of heavily spray-painted, decaying structures west of Gold Hill is made of reinforced concrete, and after roughly a century of standing, it’s not likely to dissolve into dirt anytime soon.

An unlikely admirer of the place is Ralph Phillips, an 80-year-old retired engineer living in Carson City. “It’s a fascinating place to go, but you don’t want to go there alone,” he says, looking at least 10 years younger than his age implies. “It’s pretty strange.”

He tried to capture some of that strangeness on various visits there with his digital camera and the tools of Photoshop. His efforts are recorded in American Flat Revisited, a series of photographs at Saint Mary’s Art Center in Virginia City.

“At first, they didn’t look like much when I took them home, but with Photoshop, it changed everything,” says Phillips. He enhanced various photos by changing colors, shapes and sizes, enjoying the creativity of manipulation.

In “Ponds,” for example, pools of green-blue water curve upward. The water looks like metal, not liquid. Cans of spray paint float on its surface, and concrete beams waver about 40-feet above. In the “Twilight Zone,” a broad shot of a building is set under a mustard-yellow sky lined with orange and surrounded by brightly colored sagebrush.

“I tried to abstract them and make them more surreal,” says Phillips. “That’s the feeling you get up there—a surreal feeling.”

It’s not that Phillips is a huge fan of graffiti. He calls most street graffiti “disgusting.” But it’s different at American Flat. “I don’t mind it up there,” he says. “I hate to see it in Carson City or Reno. But some of this work is quite artistic.”

He’s mostly interested in places in states of decay and change. American Flat is one of those old, ephemeral places. The graffiti in the photos Phillips took a year ago have been sprayed over by others. The light itself creates constant states of change. “It changes all day long,” says Phillips.

The photographs pop with color—cobalt blue, rusty reds, oranges—almost like a pool of oil reflected in the sun. The lines in the photos resemble Impressionist paint strokes. Phillips used to paint with watercolor, which he thinks may have affected how he enhances his photographs. “As an artist, you see a little different than a normal person,” he says with a laugh.

Phillips’ interest in photography began while he was growing up in San Diego, and he received a box camera. It continued between the 1930s-50s, when black-and-white still reigned. After returning from serving in World War II, he even opened a studio in Cheyenne, Wyo. Then, when color started taking over the photography scene, he lost interest and concentrated instead on becoming a professional engineer. It was only a couple years ago, when he picked up a digital camera, that he thought it might be time to return to photography.

The photographs in American Flat Revisited aren’t the work of a master. Rather, they’re the experimental doings of a man who had given up on photography until he found something to make him excited about it again—an ever-changing landscape and a new way of seeing it.