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Visual storytellers: Capturing the ever-changing face of downtown

As rundown storefronts are painted over and transformed into trendy bars and shops, a photography exhibit now on display at three downtown galleries draws attention to the hand-painted signs, quirky murals and lesser-known neon of the city that are the natural casualties of renovation.

The three photographers who created this Vegas Vernacular Project – Mark Johnson, Bryan McCormick and Geoffrey Ellis – are racing against the clock to preserve an often overlooked aspect of Las Vegas’ unique character.

With more than 20 volunteer photographers, programmers and writers, the team aims to create an open website, VegasVernacular.org, where the community can access the city’s unique signage and oral histories, allowing all to engage with local history. In addition to the thousands of images amassed by the team itself, community members are encouraged to contribute their own images that predate the project.

“Our city is viewed as one that shuns its history, but up until now there really has been no mechanism to help tell the stories of our shared experience,” McCormick said. “We hope to help change that.”

The public is invited to visit the three galleries downtown to enjoy a sampling of the photos throughout the month of October: Amanda Harris Gallery of Contemporary Art in Soho Lofts, Trifecta Gallery at the Arts Factory and Emergency Arts’ stair space and /usr/lib. Prints will be affordably priced, with sales helping to support the project’s continuation.

“While these signs are not always beautiful in a conventional sense,” McCormick said, “there is something about seeing them all together that helps people realize the beauty of our city’s character hidden in plain sight. Things are changing so quickly; we want to capture the present look before it vanishes.”

Though the Vegas Vernacular Project documents buildings and signs in more than 40 mapped zones of the city, it is focused on downtown, where there are both a high density of signage and a rapid rate of turnover because of revitalization.

Another group working to capture downtown’s history in the making is a husband-and-wife film production team, William and Vanessa Swaney, owners of V3 Arts. Their documentary currently in production, “Beyond Neon,” focuses on the resurgence of downtown Las Vegas and will include everything from the high-profile move of Zappos.com into the former city hall to the many small businesses opening up in the area.

Once the finished film is released in 2013 and entered across the film festival circuit, it will be donated to UNLV Special Collections for its archives and research on downtown revitalization. More information is available at www.facebook.com/BeyondNeonFilm.

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