Lara Shipley, Desire Lines

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Overlapse (here). Softcover (section sewn, OTA-bound with printed paper covers), 17×22.5 cm, 208 pages, with 170 photographs, satellite maps, and archival images. Includes two inserts, an essay by the artist, and shorter quotes from interviews. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past decade or two, we’ve seen a marked increase in the number of contemporary photobook projects that liberally incorporate archival photographs, maps, documents, journal entries, and other materials, and in the sophistication with which these visuals are being woven into larger aesthetic narratives. In the simplest sense, the addition of such materials can provide useful context, and make more explicit the connections between past and present; particularly in inward looking studies of the contours of personal or family identity, an old photograph or two of parents or relatives can help bring historical legacies and relationships into sharper view.

But of late, many photographers have been stretching the traditional boundaries and formal aspects of such projects, leaving simpler books of photographs with a few archival add-ons behind and evolving toward more integrated artistic studies that intermingle contemporary work and archival materials in bold and innovative ways, employing nuanced strategies like layering, collage, and rephotography to tell their stories. The result is not only a richer and deeper set of photographic histories, cultural investigations, and anthropological studies, but a meaningful expansion of the possibilities of different kinds of narrative frameworks.

Lara Shipley’s Desire Lines belongs on a short list of recent photobooks that smartly rethink how archival visuals can enhance a contemporary photography project. It takes as its subject the Sonoran Desert area between Arizona and Mexico, where the border between the two countries currently runs and the increasingly polarized debates about immigration policy and enforcement are being lived each and every day. At its core, this is a photobook study of the land itself, but what becomes clear quite quickly is that the cycles of people living and moving, or inhabiting and immigrating to this place have been in near constant flux for centuries, making its repeated history of one group supplanting and/or coexisting with another something like a set of circles or a continuously fluid spiral, with the invisible line of the border itself in the physical center of it all.

Of course, given the urgency and complexity of the border situation, Shipley isn’t the only artist who has been trying to compassionately make sense of it all; in fact, photographers on both sides of the separation line have been wrestling with its many issues for much of the decade that Shipley has been working on her own project. In just the past few years, Zoe Leonard (gallery show from 2022, reviewed here), Ken Light (photobook from 2020, reviewed here), and Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo (gallery show from 2017, reviewed here), among many others, have all engaged with the conditions along the US/Mexico border, and if we go back further to the mid-1990s, Mark Klett actually made photographs in the same region that Shipley has made her central subject.

In a certain way, the desert region of the borderlands stubbornly resists being easily or memorably photographed, its dusty hills, scrubby undergrowth, and wide open sun-blasted spaces offering only a limited number of viable landscape approaches. And among those that have photographed the area recently, there are plenty of common themes, motifs, and subjects that have been consistently repeated: desperate migrants on the run, water stations in the desert, left behind belongings, shaded resting spots, riverbanks, border patrol agents, surveillance infrastructure, helicopters in the sky, border walls, checkpoints, tracks in the sand, and makeshift graves. From this common laundry list of photographic ideas, we might reasonably conclude that there are only so many ways to tell this story, however complicated as it may be.

Shipley’s Desire Lines follows many if not all of these same well trod pathways, but then uses archival materials (and various collaging techniques) to broaden and reimagine her narrative. Her toolbox of unconventional image recontextualization tactics overflows with ideas: she repeatedly mixes color and black and white imagery (both her own and archival finds); she uses full bleed maps as backdrops for multiple image insets; she places contemporary portraits on top of archival landscapes, and archival images on top of contemporary landscapes, mixing time periods; she disrupts landscapes with collaged archival fragments; she inserts newspaper clippings and pages from government documents; she tears images and reassembles composites drawn from several pictures; she leverages tonally reversed imagery to replicate surveillance camera footage, and multiple exposures to recreate the feeling of shimmering heat mirage; and she incorporates text fragments from interviews into the larger flow of imagery (often pairing them with smaller still life photographs), bringing personal individual voices into the multi-layered dialogue. Nearly every page turn in Desire Lines offers a new reshuffling of the visual information, creating an overarching feeling of time and people freely intermingling (and colliding) within the context of this specific place.

What’s powerful about this approach is that it places the current immigration crisis unfolding at the border into a much longer (and more complicated) continuum of historical movement; Shipley’s narrative forces us to see it not in isolation or as one particular “problem” to be “solved”, but as part of a continuous process deeply rooted in the land itself. Several of the early spreads in Desire Lines wind the clock back to an earlier influx of migrants in this same location – the largely white settlers, backed by an attitude of Manifest Destiny and the military support of the US government, who moved West into the lands already occupied by Native peoples. One spread layers an archival picture titled “An Indian Watching the Arrival of Emigrants” (with the lone man silhouetted from the back, looking outward at various covered wagons) atop one of Shipley’s recent landscapes, the unforgiving rocky terrain seen with timeless clarity and an echo of history. Other spreads bring together images of settlers building towns, workers laying railroad track, and cavalry troops fighting the Native peoples looking on from the hills, placing the archival pictures atop stereotypical magazine views of desert cacti. Shipley also makes connections back even further, to the anonymous peoples who made the petroglyphs, handprints, and weathered carvings that dot rock walls and to a conquistador helmet, reinforcing the point that even though this dusty dry land may look “empty”, it has been inhabited in different ways for a very long time.

These strata of history are then brought into conversation with more current images, making obvious that while the various communities and roles may have changed over time, many of the aspirations, desires, and implications that drive their behavior remain largely the same. New waves of migrants from Mexico and further South fleeing poverty and persecution (and seeking hope and opportunity) are coming into conflict those whose ancestors were once settlers fleeing similar forces (and seeking similar possibilities), twisting the implied logics and rationales back on themselves. Shipley shows us evidence of the more militarized border that now exists (or is being constructed), and then methodically lays out how these efforts are deliberately driving migrants away from crossing the border in cities and into more inhospitable and dangerous territory, leading to many more deaths out in the desert. The visual pieces are slowly fit together like an intricate puzzle: straight border lines drawn on maps through desolate hills; drone contrails in the sky; backpacks, blankets, and water jugs abandoned in the desert; lines traced in the dirt; night vision and heat sensor imagery constantly watching; fleeting clouds of rising dust or unexplained smoke seen out in the brush; and volunteers and religious leaders burying bodies. The aggregation of all of these visual details weighs heavily, linking layers of stories, events, and violence into a dense tapestry that intentionally mixes past and present.

Desire Lines deliberately muddies any bright line definitions of who is a migrant (or who is migrating in “the right way”), who is vulnerable or powerful, who is watching, and whose death we mark or overlook. The untamed land itself seems altogether indifferent to these opposing sides and back-and-forth movements, in that the old photographs of the region Shipley has included aren’t markedly different than what she shows us in her newer images. But the fracture lines still exist, however invisible, and Shipley offers us an expressive visualization of these histories in torn images of the desert she has reassembled, a single vista now made up of half a dozen ripped pieces, all the stories, confusions, and contradictions coexisting in an integrated vision of this place.

What Desire Lines does best is succinctly disassemble the notion that there is one history to this region, or that there is one version of “good” and “bad” that encompasses all its layers; while we are now being fed a stream of sound bites and talking points that seem to simplify the message, the truth is altogether messier, more uncertain, and in all directions, more deeply human. Shipley recognizes that there have been and still are seekers on all sides, with desire lines both past and present (thus the title of the book) that run through this stretch of desert. Her photographic approach sees this swirlingly fluid and resonantly extreme place as a “manufactured landscape”, where some stories are told and others are intentionally forgotten; by forcing those collisions out in the light, via her unconventional incorporation of archival material, she’s asking us to acknowledge a richer legacy, one whose bonds and divisions are inextricably piled atop one other.

Collector’s POV: Lara Shipley does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Skinnerboox (here). Softcover with Swiss binding, 24 x 28 cm, 108 pages, with 40 black-and-white reproductions and 14 contact sheet pages. Includes ... Read on.

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