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Capturing Crossings

Alex Webb's photography shows a quarter-century of life along the border

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Twenty-five years ago, when the border was more porous and the times less perilous, the U.S. Border Patrol actually allowed Mexican kids to cross to the other side, to play in the green fields of America.

At least they did in San Ysidro, Calif., north of Tijuana, where the border fence was hardly worth mentioning. The Mexican kids lived in shacks in crowded Tijuana, their houses perched in dense clusters on hillsides. But at the bottom of the slope, the town ended abruptly, and gave way to the rolling green hills of California. It was a simple matter for kids to slip north, and one day in 1979, a couple of young boys ran onto the American slopes to fly a kite in red and black.

Magnum photographer Alex Webb captured that odd border moment, when some kids' need for open space temporarily overrode international politics. In his picture, "San Ysidro, California, 1979," the kids frolic on the green grass, their sense of liberty palpable. Their kite soars above both nations--high over the houses of Mexico and the hills of California--heading, you hope, for the open atmosphere.

Those kinds of escapes happen far less frequently nowadays, since the "U.S. government has built up the fence into a massive metal wall," as Webb writes in his book Crossings: Photographs From the U.S.-Mexico Border (Monacelli Press, 2003), a sumptuous volume of pictures he took over a 26-year period, from 1975 to 2001. A major show of the pictures, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, is making its way around the country, a prelude to a European tour, but a small sampling is now on view at Tucson's Etherton Gallery.

"I've noticed big changes in the border over the years," the peripatetic Webb said by phone recently from his Brooklyn home, where he had alighted after a trip to the northern countries of South America for a French magazine.

"What happens near the fence is different. When I started working on the border, on up through 1995, it was pretty easy to cross, through Tijuana, San Ysidro, Juarez. In Tijuana, huge numbers of people would gather on the border and rush through during the shift changes of the Border Patrol."

The border winds its way across the North American terrain for 1,952 miles, from the Pacific coast of California, clear past Arizona and New Mexico, and on to Texas, where it ends at the Gulf of Mexico. Returning intermittently to the border over more than two decades--in between trips to Istanbul, the Amazon, Florida, and wartorn Haiti, Uganda and Bosnia--Webb pointed his Leica at points all along the frontera, including the Arizona border towns of Nogales, Naco and Agua Prieta.

Vendors used to sell tacos along the line to prospective migrants, Webb said, and in some towns, Mexicans would actually get their mail on the American side. "For years, there was a kind of casualness that's disappeared. Around '95, the effort to beef up border security began."

Webb's pictures record some of those changes. A photo taken in Tijuana in 1992 shows a long line of men on the Mexican side, awaiting that serendipitous border patrol shift change. They stand patiently on a low concrete wall, looking north, ready to dash at the right moment al otro lado, to the other side. But this casual wink-wink arrangement came to a halt when the feds cracked down on illegal immigration in the mid-'90s, sealing off the borders in the big cities and forcing migrants into far more dangerous desert treks.

Harsh corrugated metal fences went up, slicing through towns like Nogales, El Paso and San Diego. Once the metal swathes were used as military landing flats in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars; now they split twin border cities in two. Webb's images switch from the shadowy cat-and-mouse games of earlier years to glimpses of the forbidding border metal. A 1995 picture from Tijuana shows the metal barrier planted on the Pacific beach, stretching way out to sea, the better to discourage enterprising swimmers.

One of the last photos in the project, "Agua Prieta, Sonora/Douglas, Arizona, 2001," shows migrants stealthily trying to cross into Arizona. When it was taken in 2001, Agua Prieta was still the hot crossing. In the picture, the migrants crouch as they make their way past some wooden fence posts, trying to slip under the Border Patrol's radar.

For all his attention to the tragedies of the border, where the poorest of the Earth's poor come up against the military hardware of the Earth's mightiest nation, Webb's pictures are never purely photojournalistic.

"I'm a street photographer who deals with social issues, not a journalist," Webb said. He doesn't normally travel with the media pack. He wouldn't have turned up, he said, in Tombstone this month to record the sudden influx of vigilantes to the Wild West town, where photographers and reporters seemed to outnumber the self-styled Minutemen.

"An awful lot of what I do is wandering ... letting the experience lead you where it will. I have a deep faith that something will work out."

Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, his Magnum predecessor, Webb has a gift for capturing the "decisive moment." His work is fraught with elusive narratives, and quirky but impossibly apt images, like those kids innocently raising a kite aloft at a contested border.

In "Boquillas, Coahuila, 1979," a boy flings himself at an adobe school in a sleepy Mexican town, but he seems weightless, ready to soar and fly away. A prostitute intently reads a book outside a neon-lit club, as she awaits her next customer, in "Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, 1978." A street sweeper bends to his task in front of an improbable painted Titanic on a wall, evidently chugging to its doom ("Agua Prieta, Sonora, 2001").

"He's such a brilliant photographer," said Terry Etherton, proprietor of Etherton Gallery. "His pictures have a tremendous amount of detail, and he puts it together with color. They work on a formal level but they also have social commentary."

Webb never stages his pictures, nor manipulates his subjects.

"That would make a mockery of what I do," witnessing history, he said. Instead, he wanders. And he waits. And he shoots endlessly.

"I shoot 1,500 to 2,000 rolls of film a year, and I come away with maybe 15 pictures," he said. "There's a high level of frustration in this kind of work. Ultimately, you have to have a high level of patience.

"It's mysterious how pictures happen. Every once in a while, it works."

His openness to experience--and patience--is what allows him to get shots like "Nogales, Sonora, 1995," a picture of the classic Mexican tan dog scrounging beneath a bright red banner, at the exact moment that a woman in a red dress strolls past the hillside homes.

The Tucson writer Tom Miller, who contributed an essay to the book, has worked with Webb a number of times, both along the border and in Cuba. The author of On the Border and other works, Miller said he's seen Webb sit under a bridge for hours, taking pictures and waiting for the perfect light of late afternoon. That patience allows enigmatic human--or animal--dramas to unfold and make their way onto his film.

"He's a very literary photographer," Miller said. "His photos are short stories."

And they're never about just one thing. Almost all his pictures have at least two elements--the street sweeper, say, along with the doomed painted Titanic. The person looking at the picture completes the tale, Miller noted. "The third part of the triangle is the viewer."

California-born, in 1952, Boston-raised and Harvard-educated, Webb first learned photography from his father. As a teenager, he worked on a high school film project, and the group experience persuaded him that he was more suited to the solitary profession of photography.

"I realized I wanted to work alone."

In college, he studied literature and history, disciplines that would later offer him insights in his travels around the globe.

"Lots of things I studied at Harvard were useful," he said. "I took a big survey course in the history of revolutions. While I was witnessing the terror in Haiti in 1987, I thought of the terror in the French Revolution. These kinds of influences are inserted."

By the time he graduated, he had already published two photography projects, one of street kids in Cambridge and another of the "strange Americana" on Route 1 north of Boston. Magnum, the legendary photo agency founded by Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, among others, snapped him up right away.

"Alex was the youngest member ever admitted, at age 21," Etherton said. "He already showed such incredible skill and talent."

One year in, Webb found himself on the U.S.-Mexico border, partly inspired by a Graham Greene short story.

"In the mythology of the U.S., the border has always had a certain allure," he said. "I took a trip in 1975, when I was just becoming a photojournalist."

The early pictures were in black and white, then the only palette for serious photographers. But he soon found that the place demanded color.

"In the places I seem to be drawn to, color is embedded in the culture," he said. "I started color in '78 or '79."

Webb kept coming back to the border, even when other assignments and his own projects took him all over the world. He was at first more interested in the literal border crossings, the world of the illegal migrants. But he gradually began to focus on "many other kinds of crossings," the way the two nations sidle up and slide into one another, alternately colliding and collaborating.

There's a "sense of a world that's not really Mexico, not really the U.S. It's something in between."

He was arrested a couple of times, he said, when he was traveling with illegal immigrants, but each time, once he provided his journalism credentials, he was readily released. The only time he felt himself in danger: "I was crossing illegally with another photographer. We were approached by some guys--they were probably bandits. There was some tension. Considering the number of people crossing illegally, I find it a remarkably nonviolent place."

Webb has photographed in a few very violent places--in the Haiti uprising, in a coup in Uganda, in Bosnia and in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict--but he prefers not to. He has no interest in being embedded in Iraq, for instance, where the danger is so great, journalists can hardly travel anywhere without a military escort.

"Some photographers are drawn to civil strife. Not me. I'm drawn to places in cultural conflict."

Despite all his years of witness along the U.S.-Mexico border, Webb said, "I don't have any solutions" to its problems. "I'm just a photographer. Obviously you can't just let anyone come in. But the economy of the Southwest just wouldn't exist without cheap labor. What would a pepper cost in New York (without migrant labor)? It's an insoluble problem, like many situations in the world."

Case in point is Webb's 1979 picture of migrants being arrested by the Border Patrol in San Ysidro. It could have been taken yesterday. A helicopter hovers overhead under thickening clouds. Below, in a field of lovely yellow flowers, two men raise their arms to be frisked by the agents, but the gesture has a Christ-like air of innocence and resignation.

Veering between tragedy and beauty, like the border itself, the picture begs the question, "What terrible economic situation drives people from their homes?" Webb said. It's set in a landscape of "incredible beauty," but documents something "totally tragic ... I don't have answers, but as a photographer, I try to respond to a world that's both tragic and comic."

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