The border cleaves the southwestern edge of the United States like a sidewinder undulating through the desert. On the map, its path has remained more or less fixed for about a century. Not so in the popular imagination: Over time, that 2,000-mile line has served as flash point, symbol and lightning rod for Americans' ambivalence over sticky questions of policy, culture and ethnicity.
Alex Webb takes a closer look. For about three decades, the border has been canvas and palette for this documentary photographer and Brooklyn, N.Y., resident. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is currently showing 40 prints shot by Webb in more than a dozen border towns, starting in the 1970s. The works on view are among 95 images assembled in "Crossings: Photographs From the U.S.-Mexico Border," published in October by the Monacelli Press.
In "Crossings," the border represents not a problem to be solved but a historical moment where traditional notions of national definition are in flux. In image after image, transformation and possibility are the emergent themes. From Tijuana to Matamoros, "Everyone was always trying to move, to go across to the other side. Mexicans coming across legally or illegally, or Americans going into Mexico searching for whatever kind of fantasy," Webb says. Urgency and expectation are recurring motifs in the volume's 10 black-and-white and 85 color images. Often there is a sense of imminent movement; in many scenes, people seem to be waiting for a crucial event.
The drama of forbidden immigration was admittedly what first drew Webb to the subject. "I was intrigued by stories I'd read about people coming across the river illegally from Ciudad Juarez into El Paso," he says of his fascination with the border, which he has come to see as a misunderstood and unappreciated place. The journey north is represented here. Webb's camera captures groups of Mexicans on the verge of illegal crossings. Some gather optimistically along corrugated metal barriers. Others hide out in the brush or under cover of night. Still others, wrapped in worn blankets, rest at the end or beginning of a wearisome journey.
But once immersed in the project, Webb "realized it wasn't just people coming across the border illegally." Amid the political wrangling, Webb's work seems to suggest, lives are unfolding in a world that is neither here nor there in a nationalistic sense. Young people fall in love. A bus carries riders past a 7-Eleven. "Block to block, you think you're deep in the heart of Mexico, and the next moment you think you're in some strange extension of the United States," Webb observes. The point is underscored by the presence of mirrors and panes of glass in many photos, as well as in images of Tijuana, a place defined in many ways by its proximity to Southern California. "The whole entertainment industry in Tijuana is much more elaborate and larger than the other border towns," he says. "Tijuana sits next to San Ysidro, which is really part of San Diego, which is almost an extension of Los Angeles." In that sense, "East L.A. is connected with Tijuana."
And for Webb, that is, well, the bottom line. The border he knows is neither the U.S. nor Mexico, but a hybrid of the two, a nexus for the Americas. " 'America' as the totality of the Americas," he says. "It's a special place."
"Alex Webb: Crossings," through Dec. 7 at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 1001 Kettner Blvd., San Diego, (619) 234-1001.