Photography on the Border

A theme that cycles through my book, especially the earlier chapters, is life on the border between Texas and Mexico. I very rarely went to Mexico, and for the tamest of reasons. But others went for untame reasons and I heard their conversations growing up. Drugs, cheap liquor and Boystown — the name of the red-light brothel zones.

The rawest reason jumped out at me during a recent visit to, of all places, the International Center of Photography in New York, one of my favorite museums. The exhibit that caught my eye, and took me right back to the banks of the Rio Grande, was a look at the contact sheets of the Magnum photo agency. Contact sheets are direct prints from negatives on to  photo paper, how photographers used to assess their work, finding the best and weeding out the rest.

One of the Magnum contact sheets came from photographs for a book called “Boystown: La Zona de Tolerancia,” published in 2000 by Aperture in association with the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography at what was then Southwest Texas State University, now Texas State University-San Marcos.

I have that book.

I have it, moreover, through a surprising process — an accident, a matter of a noontime trip to the Virgin Megastore in Times Square in 2004, before it closed. I worked in the Midtown and always enjoyed lunch breaks at the store, a sprawling multilevel cathedral of music, books and movies. The place had a bin for books that were damaged or unpopular. I glanced at the bin. The big-format book with the black spine and silver lettering that announced “Boystown” practically leaped into my hand. The spine was cracking, the edges were worn, but I didn’t care; I would have paid triple the price of $4.99 for this amazing window into the life pulsing on the other side of the river, a world I heard about, but never even got close to experiencing — not that I ever had a desire to visit the red-light districts of Mexico.

Eight years after getting the book, I saw one of the contact sheets at the ICP. The explanatory text filled in some of the gaps in the book, which kept its geographic details very vague. None of the essays give details about where on the border the photos of prostitutes with drunken gringo frat boys, aging ranch bosses and Mexican workers were taken. The black-and-white photos existed in a feverish neverland that existed somewhere but no place in particular. However, the text for the sheet identified the local as (if I recall correctly), Ciudad Camargo, across from Rio Grande City. The place immediately grounded itself just 30 miles from where I grew up, in Mission.

These days, I doubt too many lonely Anglo ranchers and drunken frat boys are yahooing it across the border for debauched fun as they did in the 1970s when these photos were taken by Mexican street photographers hustling for a buck. The places still exist, but I’m guess the clientele has radically changed. Still, the book captures a place in time, when I was taking notes and starting to write about what was going on around me, on the other side of the river.

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