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Spotlight: Stefan Falke's Look at Border Artists Has a New Urgency

By David Schonauer   Thursday April 11, 2019


Sometimes history turns a good idea into a timely one.

In 2008, New York-based photographer Stefan Falke began photographing the flourishing arts community in the border region between the United States and Mexico — from painters, muralists, and musicians to arts promoters and museum directors. His goal, he says, was to offer a counterpoint to stories in the media — and propagated by politicians — depicting the borderland as a lawless and violent wasteland.

“I wanted to give the border region the image it deserves,” he says. “I found that the negative image of the border — that it’s a place of crime and illegal immigration — did not do justice to the area that I saw when I went there. I saw a place where so much was going on culturally, with so much bi-national cooperation between arts institutions.”

Falke was also drawn to the border for personal reasons. He is a native of Germany, a country that, as he notes, was once divided by a physical and political barrier. “I became interested in the U.S.-Mexico border after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Since then, the wall between the U.S. and Mexico has been growing,” he says. “For me, border areas are always more interesting, because they are where cultures meet. I wanted to see for myself whether all the negative stories about the U.S.-Mexico border region were true.”

Today, with the rise of Donald Trump and his efforts to turn the border into a political flash point, Falke’s ongoing series, which he calls “La Frontiera,” has a new urgency. On April 25, an exhibition of the series will go on view at the Centennial Museum of the University of Texas El Paso. 

Falke will also be discussing the work on April 16 at ThePhotoCloser “Projections” series in New York. Photographers Claudia Paul and Dirk Anshutz will also be presenting work. (Go here for details.)

As of this year, Falke has photographed 203 artists who live and work along both sides of the border between the U.S. and Mexico. His work there has been funded by a variety of sources, including a grant from a German photography foundation. In 2012 he launched a crowdfunding campaign. Inevitably he has also put a lot of his own money into the project. The work has been featured by a number of publications over the years, including Hyperallergic and Wired.

Falke chose to focus on artists along the border in part because he often photographs artists — actors, writers, musicians and others — as part of his commercial photography business. “It’s probably 80 percent of my work, so it was just natural for me to search out artists,” he says. “But I also focused on them because artists have their fingers on the pulse of societies — they know about their surroundings more than other people, and they reflect those surroundings in their own work.”

Falke has previously published some of the “La Frontiera” images in a book in Germany. He plans to publish the material in a book in the U.S. as well. But over the years, he says, the project has changed. “Earlier, I wanted to photograph as many artists as I could during my travels to the border,” he says. “Now I’m less interested in numbers. I don’t want to publish a catalog of artists.  Now when I’m photographing along the border I’m focusing on one or two stories and delving deeper into them.”

He will be featuring some of the newer, unseen work at his “Projections” presentation on April 16, along with his older work.

Falke grew up in Paderborn, a city in western Germany, and took up photography at age 14 when his father gave him a camera. He was already interested in art — he wanted to become a cartoonist — but changed directions when he started photographing his friends. “I became popular because I was the one who was taking pictures,” he says.

He moved to the U.S. in 1985, simply out of curiosity. “My plan was to live in New York for a year, but I ended up staying,” Falke says.

Now, with his “La Frontiera” series, he has provided an important alternative view to depictions of a region overrun by caravans of criminals. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says.

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