For most of the 20th century Ajo was run by the Phelps Dodge Company. The town’s distinctive commercial and civic core, designed in the 1910s, combined City Beautiful principles of linearity and symmetry with an imagined Spanish heritage. Ajo’s idyllic plaza, imposing school and racially segregated neighborhoods evoked a stability which juxtaposed with the booms and busts of copper mining and the town’s location within a dynamic, triple frontier of Anglo, Mexican and Native American cultures. In the 1980s, Phelps Dodge pulled out of the community, ending a tradition of mine work that for some Ajo families was four generations old. Ajo recast its identity amidst post-industrial decline, and at the turn of the 21st century a community organization started refurbishing the distinctive buildings of the mining era to support a new economy based on tourism and the arts. At the same time, however, new U.S. border enforcement strategies funneled undocumented crossers from Mexico into sparsely populated border regions, including the desert surrounding Ajo. In the first two decades of the 21st century Ajo became a new kind of company town as local contractors and real estate agents refurbished former Phelps Dodge houses to rent to Border Patrol agents, private security contractors and others in the new border security economy.
Our research explores how these economic, cultural and social transformations play out on Ajo’s urban landscape. Using the method of re-photography, we make contemporary photographs from roughly the same vantage points of photographs taken in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. Finding the vantage point of the original photograph is central to this method, although approximations must sometimes be made when access to the original vantage point is impossible. The old and new photos are then presented side-by-side or embedded within one another to allow the viewer to explore change over time in Ajo’s urban landscape.