New Project: Meditations on Boundary Landscapes and Surveillance


The Basics

My work is focused on the blurring of time, and this project will continue the intersection of past and present begun with the My Baghdad (2007), and Flow (2010) bodies of work (see galleries here). The ambrotype views captured with the 19th century wet collodion photographic process* for this project will modify our contemporary understanding of time, bending, folding, tugging it backwards along the sliding-scale of memory, challenging the viewer to question our ideas of progress, history, and America’s obsession with security.

This project is focused on the vast desert landscapes of the more remote border areas of southern Arizona, while grounded in the aesthetics and methods of the photographic images created during the great American West survey expeditions of the 1870s. Long stretches the Arizona border, established in 1853 by the Gadsden Purchase, and the lands surrounding it have changed little since that time, marred only by the jarring appearance of modern surveillance equipment and operations.  Imagine a beautiful 20” panoramic plate depicting the rugged desert landscape, an image that could have been produced by Timothy O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, or Eadweard Muybridge during the Modoc Indian War of 1873 only to have your sense of time jolted into the present by the realization that in the distance you see a 100’ Department of Homeland Security surveillance tower observing the creation of its own image.

The part of the Sonoran Desert I will be operating in is the same desert that gave birth to the American legends of Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone.  It is the same desert that Francisco Vasquez de Coronado plunged into searching for El Dorado.  This landscape has been the stage upon which so much human theater has been played out.  Although the desert boundary area is vast, just about any location you might find yourself someone is watching your every move.  From ragged hilltops, spotters working for drug and human traffickers lay in silence for days directing the movement of their shipments north.  The government watches day and night by employing the latest military surveillance equipment ranging from fixed and mobile camera towers, UAVs, Areostat balloon systems, ground surveillance radar, seismic sensors, and helicopters, and it is this watchful landscape that I am most interested in.

*Note:  This project produces unique direct positive glass images known as ambortypes, not glass negatives as depicted in the video above.  The same process is used to create both image types.

The Line: This project’s relation to it 

The once-invisible line drawn across in the sand to represent the border between Arizona and Mexico has become a monument to America’s recurring isolationism and post 9/11 security obsessions.  Over time the line has gone from being marked only on inaccurate maps, to being delineated by numbered concrete obelisks, then cattle fence, followed by a patchwork of walls cobbled together from surplus military steel, to the most recent 25’ high double and triple-layered wall that now runs hundreds of miles across the landscape.  Most people in the United States know of this modern-day Hadrian’s Wall now because it has become an icon of what so many see as both right and wrong along the border as well as with broader National Security and economic concerns.  Because of this, the wall/fence has been a topic of many photography projects and has become a not-uncommon image used during the nightly news.

While my antique large format cameras will not avoid the wall,  this project is not about the wall, immigration, national security policy, or drug smuggling. Many have and are continuing to comment on those topics.  I want to engage the landscape that has stood as silent witness to the results of man’s deepest fears and desperations and possibly let it show us something about ourselves.

How Your Money Will Be Used

This project involves seven weeks of working in the field.  Departure to the work area occurs on, or about May 21, 2012.   Once to the work area the distances covered on a daily basis can be up to 300 miles per day, often over rugged terrain. With the current rising fuel prices a large portion of the operating budget is allocated for fuel, followed closely by image-making supplies, food, and shelter.  Supplies needed for the creation of images during this expedition are also extremely expensive as the goal is to produce positive glass plates 12”x20” in size in addition to 5″x 7″ plates. The larger size not only increases the technical difficulty, but also the cost of glass and chemicals exponentially.   As with the Exposure Kickstarter of 2010, the funding objective has been set at the bare minimum required to get the wheels rolling.  The actual duration of time spent in the field and the project’s ultimate success (including post production requirements) is based directly on the level of support provided by individuals like you.  The more support provided above the minimum goal means more can be accomplished.  My hope is that after reading the description  (and viewing some of my past work) you will be inspired to become a part of this effort.

My history with Southern Arizona

For ten years, from 1997 to 2007 I lived in one of the most amazing yet hostile environments in the United States, the high desert of southern Arizona.  Living within sight of the Naco border wall lights allowed me to see through the spectacle presented on the nightly news, and filled me with a need to create powerful images.  It was during this time that images like the Campini Mesa Crossing (see the image above) were made.  This image and many others were made during a time when I was engaging closely with the Border Patrol to better understand certain aspects of their mission.  The images were created for a more editorial audience but the experiences planted the seeds for the project for which I am now asking your help.

I have a deep knowledge of the area I will be working in, grown out of a decade of hiking, driving, and photographic exploration on and off roads, on public and private land.  I have worked closely with the Border Patrol and U.S. Army and Marines public affairs offices during past projects, most recently the Coast Guard and British Petroleum (BP) offices to gain restricted access during the making of Flow.  These experiences have equipped me well for seeking and gaining access and support from multiple government and private organizations.  During the past five years since leaving Arizona, I have maintained a network of contacts in the area that are ready to provide on-site support and access that will allow me to hit the ground running, ready to start work.   All I need is your help in getting there with a Jeep full of glass, chemicals and a portable darkroom.

To become involved with this project please use THIS SITE to provide your support and receive great rewards!


~ by Phil Nesmith on March 25, 2012.

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