Gilberto Cárdenas Cultural Refractions
Border Life en la tierra de nadie
Dr. Gilberto Cárdenas
Director of Latino Research Institute
Notre Dame University
Until recently, the United States-Mexico border was considered an isolated and sparsely populated region of both countries. Outside the border region, the United States and Mexican imaginaries did not conjure up informed understanding of border communities or their people. The Mexican side of the border was viewed as problematic–based on outdated and erroneous conceptions of the wild frontier-boystown, poverty, and cultural deprivation. The strength and importance of the border economy was not understood as vital to the economic well-being of either nation. The indifference to the border that prevailed in both nations has been replaced by keen attention. Many contradictory developments have made the border highly salient. Immigration has crept into the political arena as a thorny issue that belies simplistic solutions. Nevertheless, simplistic solutions abound, and draconian efforts to criminalize migration have intensified, making the imaginaries of the old border appear to be real in the present–the only remedy to control the border is militarization. NAFTA and globalization have elevated the importance of the border to the economies of both nations and certainly to the immediate interests of the border states of each nation. The population of the border communities continues to grow by leaps and bounds. At one point, the greater border region was the fastest growing region of the world. Today, border municipalities are rapidly becoming thriving cities with urban populations that expand at a phenomenal rate and that constitute important markets. Tijuana, Baja California, for example, is now the most populous city on the Pacific coast, with the exception of Los Angeles.
The border is an area in which a rich panorama of visual contrasts is immediately available for all to view and contemplate. The shared meanings of a complex range of border experiences create social realities that change daily, and at the same time, remain constant, even if they do not invoke a sense of permanence in the minds of “fronterizos,” the people of the border. Visitors, tourists, and recently arrived settlers engage the border with wonder and dismay about the ever- so -present array of contrasts and contradictions encountered in both the urban and rural landscapes of the border area. A composite intertwining of many spaces, layered and overlay on each other, provides the viewer with a sense that the border region has changed rapidly if not by invasion-like proportions. While a multitude of signs, and symbols, and a variety of physical structures such as houses, streets, cars, fences, stores, buildings and graffiti provide the visual backdrop of densely populated urban areas, the rural areas that are accessible to people are visually transformed by the human hand. The rivers, canyons, semi-arid and desert landscape retain their beauty and naturalness even as they are traversed by fences, roads and waterways, or otherwise inscribed by the vicissitudes of human activity.
Photographs of the Border
Last summer Byron Brauchli, an Austin-based photographer, traveled to the border with the expressed intention of developing an exhibition of palladium prints for Galería Sin Fronteras and to tour other venues in Texas and in Mexico. This exhibition was undertaken as an integral part of a larger project supported by a US-Mexico Fund for Culture grant awarded in 1996. This multi-purpose grant enabled Brauchli to undertake a photographic study of the border the following year; to conduct a series of workshops discussing border landscape photography and teaching palladium printing to photographers in the border region, and in Veracruz, Mexico; and to mount a traveling exhibition in the United States and in Mexico. The photographs for this exhibition represent a small portion of the work, photographs selected more for their visual power and less for their value as photographic documentation, a value which could have also resulted in a very interesting exhibition. While there is inherent documentary evidence in the works selected for this exhibition, the organizing principle was not limited to a strict documentary approach. Rather, we chose to rely less on a formal approach than on a narraitve one, emphasizing the engagement of the photographer and his response to the reality of the border. It is the visual world which he seeks and finds, and finally, which draws his attention and technical expertise with the camera.
The photographer’s encounter with the subject matter involves an “engagement” so to speak. The “engagement” to which I refer, in this case, the photographer’s arrival to the border, was preceded by a long-standing knowledge of Mexico, based on an intimacy and understanding of the people, and knowledge of the language and culture through marriage and residence in Mexico for extended periods of time. Prior to this project, Brauchli’s photographic endeavors included Cruces del Camino, an earlier series of photogravure prints, and the publication in 1996 by Galería Sin Fronteras of Encrucijadas, a portfolio of palladium prints and a photogravure concerning environmentally-related issues in the State of Veracruz, Mexico. Captured in Brauchli’s photographs are aspects of everyday life on the border, not the stuff of the moment, but the enduring- “you see it everywhere and all the time” type of subject matter. What makes these photographs interesting and compelling is the straight-shooting approach taken by Brauchli, coupled with the full-frame printing, and a masterful technique, which in the end, greatly enhance the aesthetic beauty of the photographs. Byron’s special interest in palladium printing gives him added capabilities that few photographers of the border possess. Madeline Irvine, art critic, describes palladium prints as “one of the oldest printing methods in photography still in use today….a contact print method (the negative is put directly on the paper), and the process, using different metals than the more popular silver gelatin prints, produces one of the deepest, riches tonalities in photography”(1997) The lasting and enduring images of his photographs demonstrate that his exceptional skill and effort in printing are tremendously valuable in allowing him to reach tonal values and highlights that only few are able to achieve. “Man in Railcar”, “Ironwood Vendor” and “Reflections” are particularly good examples of an excellent tonal range. A message is conveyed that suggests something special about his engagement with the border which requires the photographer to spend extraordinary time in producing a set of prints for the viewer to appreciate. While Byron’s photos convey serenity and tranquility, they do so even when there is incredible drama and conflict that is an inherent part of the story, but not always apparent–international borders, rivers and deserts are crossed daily by people trying to make a living in the midst of an ever-intensified global economy. Brauchli states that his work “focuses on the merging of modernity with tradition along the U.S.-Mexican border; it contrasts the North and the South; it establishes a visual dialectic between the two banks of the Rio Grande that narrates a coexistence and contrast of order and chaos, progress and its discontinuity; showing some ambiguities of our modern society.” This refers to images such as “Direct Manufacture” a collage/installation in a real-life setting, shot in the evening, with lit-up sculpture-size figures standing in the foreground behind a chain -link fence. In this sense the images can be deceiving in their very beauty. We are reminded of what things could be, if not for the negativity that goes with the modernities of globalization and the maintenance of national borders. This is especially true in the case of the daily “cat-and-mouse” game that transpires between the border patrol and undocumented workers attempting to cross the border to work in the United States, workers caught up in the international economy without corresponding rights of entry and exit appropriate to the situation of friendly nations sharing contiguous borders. Perhaps Madeline Irvine best summarizes Brauchli’s approach in her observation that “Brauchli seems to find an almost primordial beauty in the interaction between humans and nature” (1997).