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Know the West

Hidden in plain sight: A review of The American Wall


The American Wall: From the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico
Maurice Sherif
224 + 160 pages, two volumes, hardcover: $150.
University of Texas Press, 2011

In its ungainly proportions, Maurice Sherif's The American Wall mimics its massive subject, the U.S.-Mexico border fence. The "book" is actually two giant volumes enclosed in a slipcase. Heft one onto a table and if you don't strain your back, you'll struggle to make out the distant text at the top of a page. But largely because of its format, The American Wall offers readers a rare perspective onto a piece of public infrastructure that has generally defied such a panoptic view.

The full extent of the barrier can be tough to grasp. Construction ramped up in the wake of the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Since then, the wall has been built and rebuilt in a patchwork of styles ranging from Normandy-esque vehicle barricades to metal pillars 20 feet tall. But since the fence is deployed in segments across more than 650 miles of largely rural terrain, most Americans have yet to glimpse it, let alone assemble a sense of the thing as a whole.

That's where Sherif comes in. A French fine art photographer, he says he began "stalking" the fence in Nogales, Ariz., six years ago. Now he's collected his work in a production that's part photojournalism, part activism, part display piece.

One volume consists of essays by anthropologists, lawyers, writers and activists who've studied the fence or fought against its construction. Among other valuable contributions, there's an engrossing timeline covering 40 years of U.S. border policy, and an effective piece by Denise Gilman, a professor at the University of Texas Law School. Gilman outlines the legal framework that has allowed two different Homeland Security secretaries to waive dozens of laws while building the wall, all too often at the expense of endangered species habitat, Native American sacred sites and low-income neighborhoods bisected by the construction.

The second volume contains Sherif's stark, black-and-white photographs arranged in geographic order, from San Diego on the Pacific, to the mouth of the Rio Grande on the Gulf of Mexico, accompanied by maps of the wall's construction. To accent the brutality of the fence, Sherif shot in the hard light of noon and developed his negatives in quadratone, a four-color printing technique that brings out the metallic luster of all those padlocks, I-beams and bulldozers.

Sherif's goal with his photos, and the book as a whole, was to complete a portrait of the fence and push it into public view. He argues that its impacts have too often been eclipsed by the "shadow of saber rattling," lost in the background of stump speeches and the wider debates over immigration, guns and drug policy. Still, some reviewers contend that in his single-minded determination to illuminate the wall, Sherif himself excluded too much. You'll find very few human faces in the book's 100-odd plates, and that absence, paired with its luxurious production values, leaves him edging into suspect terrain, where a cause of misery for many becomes a source of aesthetic pleasure for a few.

That's a fair criticism. But at the same time, Sherif's desolate images capture some of the silence that has surrounded the fence's very existence, the tacit permission it's been accorded so far. The U.S. has poured $2.8 billion into a barrier already seven times longer than the Berlin Wall, but the social, environmental and foreign policy implications of the American wall have yet to attract much public scrutiny, either at home or abroad. Without other people in the frame, the photos leave you strangely alone with the structure. Seeing it undulate out of Southern California's mountains, through the dunes of the Imperial Valley and into the neighborhoods of Nogales, Ariz., Anapra, N.M., and Brownsville, Texas, you'll wonder why more of us haven't been paying attention.