When he completed “Tracing the Line,” the first photographic survey of the 698-mile international boundary between the United States and Mexico in 1987, Peter Goin was rightfully proud of his work.
It was the first time – and remains to this day the only time – that a photographic landscape survey of the United States-Mexico boundary was ever completed.
“I was curious about what a line imposed upon a landscape creates,” said Goin, whose career as a professor of art at the University has been characterized by national and international acclaim. His photographs have captured the essence of the West, whether it has been the region’s unmistakable aridity, its wide-open spaces, its rich heritage that saw it settlers come on horseback and, in the late 1940s and 1950s, saw its skies fill with the mushroom clouds of above-ground atomic tests.
“A state boundary is ephemeral on many levels; we cross county lines, city lines, property lines, but a line dividing two cultures … now that is a different kind of line,” Goin continued. “I have crossed the border into Mexico and back many, many times over my life, and I knew that line made me feel differently. As it is for so many others as well.”
To mark the 20th anniversary of Goin’s work, it is being shown in Mexico, where Goin is serving as a University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) visiting professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Puebla, Mexico, this semester.
“Tracing the Line” opened in the Galeria de la Ibero Puebla on Jan. 17, and continues through Feb. 23. It is the first time the work has been shown in Mexico.
Given how the issue of immigration has been a prime topic of discussion among the nation’s presidential candidates in 2008 – with platforms that have included everything from opening the border completely to erecting a Great Wall of China-like barrier between the two countries – the timeliness of Goin’s work is uncanny.
Yet Goin said viewers should be cautious in their application of political themes to his work.
“Political?” he said. “The survey is not political in the sense that it openly critiques a government position, regardless of what side of the boundary your view takes. In my view, anytime education seeks to inform people about an area that is inherently polemic, then by association, the work contributes to the underlying knowledge of what constitutes a layperson’s understanding.”
The photographs, given each individual’s unique world view, do have profound impact, however.
“The landscape and these photographs reveal political stereotypes, attitudes and fears,” Goin said. “Also, these photographs are not documents of people crossing, or of the border patrol, customs agents, but of the stage where this incredible drama occurs each and every day, and night.”
From more than 150 photographic possibilities – images that captured the boundary and its landscape from Brownsville, Texas, to Tijuana, Mexico, and includes deserts, rugged mountains, valleys, two major rivers and several million inhabitants – Goin has selected 50 photographs to tell the 20th anniversary story of his work.
“The work is unbelievably topical, for both countries,” Goin said. “While the date on the negatives is important, the reality is that the landscape is mostly the same, except for the population growth along and within the major sister cities – for example example, El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, Calif., as well as many others.
“Unfortunately, the crime and all the other problems of shared boundaries have increased as well, adding further importance to our collective need to understand at the first level what the landscape is, as a stage, and as in many cases, contested ground.”
Goin, who is using the semester to teach intermediate and advanced photography and history of photography to both USAC and Ibero students, said reaction to “Tracing the Line” has always been positive. He said that, interestingly, citizens from both countries seem to have similar reactions to his work.
“That is, a bit of shock and surprise at the vastness and isolation of the border, and a sense of feeling that these are changed landscapes,” he said. “In other words, the viewers bring their stories, or embrace those stories that they may have heard, in the media, film, news, and find these relatively arid, distant lands changed. And that, of course, is what these landscapes are.”