Ken Light, Midnight La Frontera

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by TBW Books (here). Hardcover with tipped-in images front and verso, 136 pages, with 66 black and white reproductions. Includes an essay by José Ángel Navejas in English/Spanish. Design by Ken Light, Lester Rosso, and Paul Schiek. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Midnight La Frontera is also available in a special edition (here). This version includes a first edition book in custom slipcase, with a signed, numbered, and stamped silver gelatin print on Ilford paper (8×10 inches), printed by the artist in his home darkroom. Limited to an edition of 30.

Comments/Context: Between 1983 and 1987, the American documentary photographer and educator Ken Light joined US Border Patrol agents as they drove along the border between California and Mexico monitoring illegal crossings. Night after night, from afternoon to early morning, he was in the car with agents as they responded to radio calls signaling suspected border crossing activity. The access he gained would probably be close to impossible to secure today. Light used his Hasselblad camera with a flash to document the human drama unfolding in the darkness.

Over the course of his career, Light has covered issues related to the social landscape of the unrest in the late 60s and early 70s, the oppression of immigrant workers, and the social consequences of the declining coal mining industry (among other topics), hoping that his coverage would make a political difference. Amid the intensified conversation about immigration policy and separation of families at the border at the moment, he revisited his earlier work hoping that his work could help in shaping the public discussion. The images have recently been released as a photobook by the Oakland-based publisher TBW Books.

The 2,000 mile long US – Mexico border has consistently attracted the attention of photographers: Dorothea Lange documented scenes along the southern border in the 1930s; more recently Richard Misrach has photographed the physical walls and the objects left behind by migrants; Alex Webb explored the complexity of a borderland culture, and the photojournalist John Moore has spent years insightfully covering immigration and border security. The border region has an immense impact on both countries.

Midnight La Frontera is an oversized book with a black and white image tipped-in on the black cover. The photograph depicts a woman, turned away in the deep darkness, as she protectively keeps a young boy, perhaps her son, close to her. The image, the dark colors, and the enveloping darkness set the atmosphere of danger, suspense, and waiting. After the title page, the opening sequence of photographs shows people caught by patrols as they hide: they lie in the bushes, climb into thickets of desert scrub, and crouch underneath tree branches, their terrified faces lit by the photographer’s flash. Printed on black paper, the photographs feel exposed and invasive (a bit like Kohei Yoshiyuki’s city parks or Weegee’s crime scenes), the men and their families caught in the bright light and trapped by both the intensity of the situation and the physical surroundings.

These introductory images are followed by an excerpt from José Ángel Navejas’s book, Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant (the text is printed in white on black pages). Navejas provides a first hand account of the heartrending night he crossed the border from Mexico. “The stretch between Tijuana and San Diego is long. Very long. And it is as treacherous as it is beautiful. It is unlikely that anybody who has ever crossed it will easily forget it. Its desert-like landscape is bound to carve itself equally onto body and soul.” His recollections serve as a backdrop to the visual narrative, exposing the mix of danger, despair, and hope that guide those trying to make the journey. “Crossing the border is a complicated business. At first I am so physically exhausted and afraid of being caught that I can’t think of anything rather than reaching my destination. But soon new feelings take shape. Entering a place uninvited implies a breach of trust. It stirs conflicting emotions and opens up room for moral ambivalence.” That night, Navejas was caught and deported, but he tried again. Today, Navejas is an author and activist, and a Phd student at the University of Illinois.

Navejas’s memories are followed by a striking full spread showing a man in white t-shirt running through land covered with low growing trees and bushes. The light catches the back of his shirt and the tops of the scrubby bushes, creating a haunting contrast. In the photographs that follow (now printed on heavier white paper), Light gets in closer to the physical dangers and emotional despair he witnessed at the border. His images are direct and immediate. Shooting in the pitch dark environment, he often had to rely on his intuition and camera settings. There are no captions with details or stories of the people he encountered, yet their facial expressions and body language offer clues to their personal dramas. A man climbs over a metal fence, another makes his way through the desert holding a baby, a third is caught hiding under a bush, and two men and a boy lay low in a pit. And then similar scenes repeat over and over again. 

As the visual narrative unfolds, there are more photographs indicating encounters with patrol officers. A man knees with his hands in the air; another lies facedown on dry grass with his hands behind his back in handcuffs; a woman and a young man stand with their hands handcuffed to each other; and a young boy and a man walk along the fence with their hands behind their heads, with a woman with a baby walking behind them. In each case, the scene takes place against the deep darkness of the night, the camera’s flash capturing the expressions of exhaustion and hopelessness. As the book progresses, more and more border crossers are rounded up. Men are chased into the night by flashlight-carrying patrol officers, sit in patrol cars, and lie on the ground in groups, waiting to be processed. Light’s photographs capture the vulnerability of these people who risk everything for the hope of starting a new life. The book ends with a photo of a man in the back seat of a patrol car holding a sleeping infant and a white plastic bag; he looks straight back into the camera, weary but protective.

At the end of the book, in the dedication text, we learn that Light’s ancestors moved to the United States in the late 19th century, escaping the pogroms in Eastern Europe. They headed to America seeking a safe place for their family and future generations. Light writes, “I am grateful and humbled by the risks my family took to bring us to this land of independence and opportunity. May future generations of immigrants enjoy the same freedoms.” The photograph on the back cover shows a man hiding low on the ground behind plants – caught exposed, he looks right back in the camera. In a sense, this could be Light, if the man in the picture (and his family) had been given a chance.

Midnight La Frontera is a beautifully produced photobook, its design executed with drama and elegance. It revisits Light’s 1980s era photographs decades later, but at a time when documenting the complexity of the border is more urgent than ever. And it powerfully exposes the struggle and sacrifice of those who leave everything behind and embark on a long dangerous journey to find the American Dream. Even with all its very real fear and anxiety, it is a book full of intense human empathy.

Collector’s POV: Ken Light is represented by Yossi Milo Gallery in New York (here). His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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