ART REVIEW : 'High Road': Pictures of a Social Dilemma : Photography: San Diego exhibition details life among the haves and have-nots along the U.S.-Mexico border--and the disparity has never seemed more disturbing.


A paved high road curves through manicured landscaping to a sprawling ranch house. The low road is dirt, and there are no homes in sight. The high road serves the upper-middle-class residents of Rancho Bernardo; the low road is a dusty path an immigrant laborer takes to bring drinkable water to his encampment.

He and the unseen homeowner are neighbors, uneasily coexisting in an atmosphere of fear, desperation, denial and deeply ingrained prejudice.

Don Bartletti's photograph "High Road/Low Road" is part of an eye-opening photo-documentation of life at the Mexico-U.S. border, commissioned by the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego and supported by the Los Angeles Times, San Diego Edition and the Times Mirror Foundation. On view at the museum through Jan. 7, "Los Vecinos" (The Neighbors) consists of images made by four American and three Mexican photographers, as well as documentary videos by two San Diegans.

Subjects are diverse: the rituals of Latino gang members, tactics of the U.S. Border Patrol, small moments in immigrant workers' daily lives, street children and the tourist trade in Tijuana. The photographers' approaches are intensely personal. And the social crisis of Us and Them has never seemed more disturbing and despairing of remedy.

Anyone familiar with images of migrant workers in the Dust Bowl taken by the Farm Security Administration photographers will observe that documentary photography has changed a great deal since the 1930s, when the best work aspired to the ennobled, exalted status of Renaissance painting.

A good number of the photographs in "Los Vecinos" are in the blurred or random-seeming "snapshot" style that has been the fashion for the past couple of decades. Scattered, dimly lit images give the flavor of life on the run and the scrounging life of the streets. The more judgmental images tend to be more rigorously composed, more "journalistic," more able to convey the bones of a narrative.

Susan Meiselas, known for her reportorial photographs of Nicaragua and El Salvador, chose to focus on what one member of the Border Patrol calls "the ultimate game hunt." In one of her images, a beefy guard with a holster holds a suspected illegal immigrant by the back of his shirt. Meiselas slices their heads off the top of the print, stripping off both their personalities to zero in on the symbolism of hunter and hunted.

Liliana Nieto del Rio, a staff photographer for New York Newsday, looks at the hard-bitten, scruffy bits of everyday life in camps on the banks of the Tijuana River. Carpet scraps, comic books, cigarette packets and dirt, endless dirt, are the interior decoration of this environment.

For amusement, a young boy aims a BB rifle at U.S. border guards who are small specks in the distance. A street kid in Tijuana makes goofy faces inside an abandoned car; others gather in bare rooms to sniff paint thinner or glue.

Antonio Turok, a self-taught magazine photographer in Mexico, offers a kaleidoscope of views of the refugee camp life in Mexico. A child's skin hangs in frightening folds from her legs. A tearful group of men and boys (where are the women?) grieve at the fringes of a child's coffin. A barefoot man in a suit lifts his hat to a covey of middle-class schoolgirls in parochial school uniforms.

Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, an award-winning Mexican photographer, locates small, mostly upbeat, moments in immigrant life: the bed as a central gathering place in a household that may not own any other furniture, the spic-and-span white dresses of young girls, children's hands laboring over a crayon drawing of a religious shrine.

Elizabeth Sisco has devoted her career to photographing life at the border. Her installation contains cheery color photographs of Tijuana vendors, shelves of their cheap wares, black-and-white candid shots of strolling tourists--and a sampling of their devastatingly insular and callous remarks. ("They are not the people I'd like to see everyday," sniffs one visitor.)

Bartletti, a Los Angeles Times photographer, is a succinct storyteller alert to the meaningfulness of detail. A row of Guatemalan refugees wrapped in blankets sleep above a freeway ribboned with bright car lights. Other Guatemalans--one carrying a native embroidered bag, another holding a plastic sack--stride through a field at dawn, rushing to street corners miles away where they hope to be hired as day-laborers.

Graciela Iturbide, a disciple of the great Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, offers images of young barrio society in East Los Angeles: the hand signals, the stylized modes of dress, the tattooed and painted decorations found on bare skin, religious murals and car hoods.

A young woman sitting wistfully in the back seat of a car with her baby is made up like a movie goddess, her painstaking self-adornment radiating a vibrancy and sensuality that floats above the decay of her surroundings. There is no violence in Iturbide's photographs, only bravado and sadness.

There wasn't enough time on one visit to absorb some six hours of videotapes by Paul Espinosa, a senior producer at KPBS-TV, and Louis Hock, a professor in the UC San Diego visual arts department. But Hock's "Mexican Tapes: A Chronicle of Life Outside the Law," offers a disarmingly low-key introduction to three families of undocumented Mexicans he came to know as neighbors and followed through five years of wonder, dismay and wariness as they learned about life on the other side of the border.

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