When Las Vegas photographer Nicholas Price approached officials at Nellis Air Force Base about doing a photo essay, he had no idea his work would wind up in America’s most august repository.
Price, 46, wanted to do more than just take glamour shots of F16s and their heroic pilots. He wanted to show the men and women who tighten the bolts on the plane, who guard the base, all the unsung heroes who allow the pilots to chase the upper edges of the envelope. “I wanted to try and deliver a positive message,” he says. “I wanted a message about why someone puts on the uniform.”
After a few months of negotiating, the Air Force granted him permission to shoot at Nellis and nearby Creech AFB in Indian Springs in 2005. Price had worried about a culture clash—between the straight-laced military and the “guy with not exactly the right hairstyle coming on the base wandering around with three cameras.” And it did take awhile for the troops at the bases to get used to his presence, to realize he wasn’t coming in to take canned portraits, but was actually hanging around, looking for those candid shots.
The result, Cleared Hot!, is an intimate, black-and-white portrait of life behind the scenes in the Air Force, including looks at the pilotless Predator drone, the elaborate Red Flag air combat training exercise and the growing role of women in the Air Force.
In all he snapped and developed 8,000 pictures during his 18-month shoot. He then had to select just 60 for an exhibit last year at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, to commemorate the Air Force’s 60th anniversary. The collection has also toured Nellis, towns throughout Nevada and other stops across the country.
And then the Library of Congress came calling, earlier this year, expressing interest in acquiring the collection. (An official announcement was scheduled for September 10.) Price says he’s humbled that his photos will join the unparalleled collections of the world’s largest library—home to more than 141 million items, including more than 12 million photographs. He jokes that “most of the photographers who have worked there are dead.”
- Beyond the Weekly
- Nicholas Price
Since finishing his work at Nellis, Price has been busy with other projects. He just completed a series of photos called Playground of the Gods, a celebration of the variety of human and animal “faces” visible in the rocks at Valley of Fire. He’s also documented Route 66 along with signs on Fremont Street. He’s currently working on a project about sideshows and the circus.
The Englishman came to Las Vegas 10 years ago because he liked the idea of living under blue skies in the desert. Certainly, he’s found his muse in the United States. “America is such a vast place,” he says. “I could spend another 50 years and not capture everything. Every state is like a country, it’s so fascinating, the depth and breadth of the country.”
A few years ago, Price moved his studio out to Pahrump. He still shoots with film and develops all of his own prints. He stores his darkroom in a freight container that he ships around the country when need be. The photographer reckons he hasn’t taken a day off in a decade. And he doesn’t seem to be angling for one now.
“What I like about photographing people is, we change overnight,” he says, reflecting on the Nellis shoot. “As individuals, we’re such fragile, temporary fixtures on the earth. We sort of come and go in the blink of an eye. Catching people for a moment in their lives is a valuable thing to do.”