Maurice Sherif’s photos of the border wall are undoubtedly beautiful. And that’s precisely the problem.
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The first notable thing about the border wall between the United States and Mexico is that the damned thing exists. Unless you live in the most southwestern reaches of America, you may have assumed, as I did, that the whole thing was merely a proposal, one of those preposterous ideas that are floated in Washington by politicians hotdogging for their constituents, only to be shot down by saner minds. But no, there is a wall, or rather, there are several walls, intermittently covering more than 600 miles of the 1,954-mile-long boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, including most of California’s and Arizona’s borders and much of New Mexico’s. (South Texas residents, a formidably independent bunch, have slowed its progress across our state, though some cities, like Brownsville, have been unable to stop the wall from slicing through their community.)
Almost all of it has been built by the Department of Homeland Security in the past four years, under the aegis of the Real ID Act, which granted the Secretary of the DHS an absolute, monarchical freedom to barricade our borders in whatever manner he chose, unhampered by the established laws of the land, including those covering environmental protection, clean air and water, and historical preservation. Starting at the Pacific Ocean, then—or, more accurately, about 450 yards into the ocean, presumably to deter swimmers, but not really strong swimmers—the wall runs over hill and dale, gouging a path through wildlife preservations, Indian reservations, and many poor neighborhoods (though at least one golf club managed to secure a waiver). In some places it’s little more than reinforced hurricane fencing with barbed wire on top, but in most others it’s an imposing structure built of slabs of concrete or steel that extend as high as 25 feet. It has cost over $2 billion to build thus far, and it’s expected to top out at more than $6 billion, not counting future costs for upkeep. An expensive project, and what’s more, ugly, unnecessary, and ineffective. And so we have The American Wall (MS Zephyr Publishing, distributed by the University of Texas Press), a forthright attack on the entire project, composed of two volumes, the first presenting nearly one hundred photographs by the French photographer Maurice Sherif, the second containing seven essays about the wall. The whole thing comes in a slipcase and retails for $150.
If you’re like me, you’ll read the essays first, and while you probably won’t find yourself any more cheerful when you’re done, you’ll almost certainly be better informed. They’re prefaced by a monody from the essayist Charles Bowden, a longtime observer of life and death along the border, and a brief statement from Sherif. Then comes a series of dismaying facts, presented without embellishment.
Anthropologists Miguel Díaz-Barriga and Margaret E. Dorsey focus on South Texas, where the wall is seen as an eyesore, an encroachment, and a crude obstacle to communities that have traditionally enjoyed fluid relations with their Mexican neighbors. What’s more, they point out, most of it has been built in urban areas and small towns, forcing illegal immigrants to cross the border in harsh and isolated regions, thereby increasing the number who die along the way. University of Texas law professor Denise Gilman neatly sums up the many ways in which the wall violates American legal precedents and international human rights law. Scott Nicol, an activist with No Border Wall and the Sierra Club, details how it threatens animal species whose existence depends on their ability to roam the lands around the Rio Grande. The last essay is an unfortunately homiletic performance by a doctor named James Tryon, but it’s followed by an exceptionally useful timeline, put together by the researcher Martha Davidson. There you will learn, for example, that barricading the border is utterly irrelevant to about half of all illegal immigrants, who come to the U.S. on legitimate visas and simply stay when they run out, and it’s little more than a speed bump for many of the rest (in four years, the wall has been breached well over three thousand times).
Volume one, which is the impetus for the entire publication, is more of a mixed bag. To be sure, Sherif’s photographs are beautiful, and they’ve been printed in quadratone black and white, an elaborate process that produces an unusually rich tonal range. Together with the translucent negative borders that frame them, this gives the pictures a plush, dreamy quality. Taken as a whole, it’s obviously a deluxe production. And just as obviously, it’s all wrong.
Almost everything about the pictures suggests a will to elegance that’s inappropriate to the matter at hand. Back in the day, black and white film was the standard for both newspapers and art photography. But that changed in the seventies and eighties, and now it looks deliberately archaic and somewhat effete—the photographic equivalent of wearing spats, or using the word “shall.” By the same token, the distorted strips at the edges of Sherif’s photographs indicate that he shot on large-format film, using a discontinued stock called Polaroid Type 55—an expensive and unwieldy process, useful mainly for large reproductions but somewhat pretentious otherwise. Moreover, by printing beyond the boundary of the negative, Sherif proves that he didn’t crop the photos, in accordance with an outmoded notion of authenticity that insists that “real” photographers frame their pictures through the camera rather than in the darkroom. It’s all very precious, “artistic” in the worst way.
As a result, Sherif’s pictures make the wall seem quite lovely as it wends abstractly across the landscape. In his opening statement he asks how “the United States became such an egregious violator of basic human rights.” Yet not one of his images shows a human being; the lives that the wall has degraded have been shut out of the pictures as well. What’s left looks like an art project—something by Christo, say, or a Richard Serra sculpture blown up to enormous scale. But the wall is not a work of art. It’s a crude and wasteful boondoggle. It should have been shot to reflect as much.
To be fair, Sherif has merely fallen victim to one of the commoner paradoxes of the medium: It’s very difficult to take a good picture of an ugly thing—to preserve its ugliness in a photograph that is estimable and compelling. The camera tends to glamorize whatever it sees, making the silkiest images out of those things we should find most revolting. Many photographers have exploited this phenomenon—Sebastião Salgado comes to mind, with his epic and hyper-refined treatment of miserable conditions around the world—and many have been admired for it. But I find it meretricious at best and vile at worst, and in this case it yields an especially cruel irony. As a photo book, The American Wall is very much like the American wall: too big, too expensive, and oblivious to the needs of the people it’s meant to serve.
Read an excerpt: The American Wall: From the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Copyright (c) 2011. Courtesy of the University of Texas Press. Buy it from University of Texas Press.
Textra credit: What else we’re reading this month
The Informationist, Taylor Stevens (Crown, $23). Debut thriller from Dallas author, introducing a Texas-based action heroine with a secret past. Read an excerpt: The Informationist. Copyright (c) 2011. Buy it from amazon.
Don’t Make Me Go to Town, Rhonda Lashley Lopez (UT Press, $34.95). The lives of eight Texas Hill Country ranchwomen, in photos and words. Read an excerpt: Don’t Make Me Go to Town. Buy it from University of Texas Press.
Pym, Mat Johnson (Spiegel & Grau, $24). Houston novelist’s adventure story about a group of African American men seeking their fortune in Antarctica. Read an excerpt: Pym. Copyright (c) 2011 by Mat Johnson. Buy it from amazon.