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Photographing the American Wall

January 28, 2012 |  7:00 am

An ominous barrier meanders through a remote landscape appearing to float across the desert sands, reminiscent of a stark, modern-day Great Wall of China. The structure is not filled with ancient wonder but rather conjures up the controversy and hostility associated with the Berlin Wall. This barricade is the American wall that divides the U.S.-Mexico border.

Since 2006, fine art photographer Maurice Sherif has spent sweltering days documenting the wall that hopscotches 2,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean in California to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas. His collection of 96 photos, along with essays from scholars, can be viewed in his giant two-volume book, "The American Wall" (MS Zephyr Publishing).

AMAzSherif, who was born in France, attended the University of San Francisco. The recurring theme of silence and large spaces is evident in his work, which includes photographs of glaciers in Patagonia and architecture in Paris.

For some, Sherif's dreamy photos of the border fence are an eye-opener, illuminating a subject that was an abstract idea,  a topic of political discourse. Published in December, the book was ranked by L.A.-based think tank Zócalo Public Square as among its top 10 best nonfiction of 2011.

The black-and-white minimalist photos reveal a fragmented wall in various stages, styles and materials. Eastward from San Diego, the structure snakes through a variety of landscapes, including rugged backcountry, populated towns and isolated backyards. No life forms are seen. Instead, the images show deterrents such as high-powered klieg lights, cameras, warning signs and X-shaped metal beams similar to those seen on the beaches of Normandy, France, on D-day.

Using Polaroid PN 55 film, Sheriff would venture out between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to get more abrasive lighting that creates sharp-edged shadows.

AWbrokenIn its fourth generation since 1969, the wall has gone through several transformations, including the addition of electric fencing, barbed wire, concrete and steel. The pictures are already obsolete, however, as a new, uniform upgrade is in the works.

A self-described social documentarian, Sherif believes the barrier is a misguided project driven by fear. "It's built like a prison," he noted.

Sherif believes that the billions spent on the wall could be put to better use. "I wanted to bring attention to people's consciousness what was going on," Sherif said of his motivation. On a visit to Albuquerque, New Mexico he was shocked to find everyone so detached to the situation.

"There's so much irony," said Sherif. "In the '80s, you have President Reagan telling Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev to 'tear down this wall'; at the same, time he's building one in his own country."

 -- Liesl Bradner

IMAGES:  Imperial Desert, San Diego sector, California. Third generation triangle with bollard floating wall - built in 2007. Right:  San Luis, Yuma sector, Arizona. Third generation bollard wall build in 2009. Bottom: Minuteman wall, Naco - Tucson sector - Arizona. 2.5 miles of walling is already installed at the Ladd Ranch. A total of 10 miles is projected on the Ladd Ranch by the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.