Snapshots of Las Vegas

  • 2006-10-11
  • By Paul Morton

OUTLAWS: Doyle Brunson (left) was the godfather of poker, Stu Ungar (center) was one of the game's great prodigies and Jack Binion (right) ran the show. All star in Ulvis Alberts' 'Poker Face 2.'

RIGA - In November 1983, Ulvis Alberts, a photographer who had snapped some of the iconic images of his time 's Christopher Reeve grinning widely from his swimming pool, a young Tom Waits, an elderly Fred and Ginger 's arrived in Riga. "It was another world, another satellite - no pun intended," he says. "Think of it: Hollywood! Photographer! In Riga, Latvia. It doesn't get any better than that, in terms of getting attention, much of it unwarranted."

Alberts was born in Riga in 1942, and emigrated to America, after four years in a DP camp in Germany, in 1949. In 1983, having made it in Hollywood, he was watching the cultural committee pick up his bill at the Hotel Latvija and he opened a small popular exhibit on Blaumuna Street. For the next few years, he brought the work of the best Latvian photographers back home for exhibits. And then he met his first wife.

"I got her to America. There's a whole novel of being chased around and trying to get to Leningrad and trying to get cleared," he says, claiming that she was one of only 11 people to leave the Soviet Union that year by way of foreign marriage.
"Anyway, we're no longer together. She got her Green Card and traded me in from silver to gold. Very talented, very sexy. Her mom came over and married a millionaire on Mercer Island [a wealthy suburb of Seattle], which is Bill Gates country." And then he married again and that ended too.

He shuttles between spending a few months at his home outside Seattle and months at one or another apartment in Riga. He loves the "cocktail of Riga" and keeps changes of clothes in various suitcases left at friends' places throughout the city.
Recently, Alberts had the idea to publish a book at a printing press in Cesis. "Poker Face 2," the sequel to a book he published 25 years ago, combines images he took of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas in the late '70s and '80s, when it was still a fringe event, with images he took at the poker gathering in the last few years, when it started to enjoy a massive televised audience and celebrity guests like Ben Affleck and Jennifer Tilly. The book is selling online for $275.

The negatives were scanned in the United States and sent electronically to Latvia. About 40 people put the book together, he says. They were doing a lot of work for a little bit of money 's "That's the story of Riga" 's and there was one issue that he says made the experience "consciously a little uncomfortable."
"What did some of these guys think was going on here [in these photographs]? Guys with fistfuls of money. What the fuck was going on in America?"

Hollywood and Vegas
Alberts sits in his apartment in Riga 's a four-story walk-up, he complains 's which looks larger than it is because of its relatively Spartan emptiness. There's a pop radio station playing from the kitchen and he talks about his life as a great star fucker in the service of a fine muse.
During his time in Los Angeles, back in the '70s, Alberts says he wasn't a member of the paparazzi. "I didn't really want to jump out of the bushes and assault somebody…I was the kind of guy who said, 'Take me home. I want to photograph you in your environment.'"

Charles Bukowski, he remembers, was in East Hollywood "in one of those, almost like living in Latvia, in one of those matchbox apartments. I didn't know much about his work at the time." In the photograph, the poet has a beer in his hand, defiant and secure in his position in life.
There's a pair of pictures of Paul and Linda McCartney taken at an after party for the film version of The Who's "Tommy" in 1975. "I like the shot because of the expression Linda gives me in the second shot." It's a beautiful, semi-shocked glance. "Tits are kinda squeezed together and she has that look."

Then there's one of Groucho Marx, sitting bolt upright on his bed in 1977, six months before his death. The Groucho expression, cemented four decades before is still there, and he seems blissfully uninterested in his own mortality. "We went to the Beverly Hills Hotel where there was a fountain outside and fed the goldfish there. He was complaining about the price of French bread with which he fed the goldfish and on and on…We had a great time."

Then he turned his eye to the World Series of Poker, which was still a relatively obscure event. Jack Binion ran the tournament at his Horseshoe Casino, and it attracted some modern brilliant outlaws.
There's Doyle Brunson, a former basketball star in high school, who, after suffering an injury, grew obese and turned his immense energies to becoming the godfather of poker.

Stu Ungar, a prodigy of the game, won the tournament three times. The other characters in the book are generally middle-aged, wearing cowboy hats and boots, but Ungar is a kid in a jumper and a floppy haircut, raking in his chips.
Ungar died young in the late '90s, after his cocaine habit caught up with him and stopped his heart. And one of the stranger photographs in the collection shows Jack Binion, older, craggier and wiser, embracing the young 20-something, whose eyes are closed.

"It's the best photograph of Stu I have," says Alberts. "He looks like a choir boy. He looks like a kid who should be in church. So I used it for that reason. Jack is kinda there hugging Stu. Of course they were close, because Stu brought a lot of publicity to the Horseshoe Casino." He cropped the picture from a much larger setting and we are left with a melancholic connection between steady, wise old age and brilliant youth doomed to be misspent.

The newer photographs, representative of the multimedia age, have their own poetry too. There's a series of photographs of Jennifer Tilly being particularly emotive and one of an older Doyle Brunson flashing the wryest of smiles.
Many of the poker players are old and need to move around in electric wheelchairs. Alberts points out a lonely photograph of one empty wheelchair plugged into a wall socket being charged in a hallway at 4 a.m. The chair is a black silhouette against the dim light of late night with some televisions on the side. "It just spoke to me," Alberts says.

He is not an action photographer. He sits and waits and watches for all the right elements to come into a frame, which he then crops for the right effect. No poker player likes to be seen without chips in front of him, but sometimes those are his best shots. "So there's a dilemma there."

Alberts mentions one photograph he took "of an old couple walking near the railroad station here in Riga. They're carrying empty frames for a painting or something…It's so perfect. You were there in that spot, there's a dog running into the frame. There's the carriage with the baby, and you are there in the moment.
"It's almost like a gift from God to have all of these things converge into a frame."

For More info: