With the aid of a new Guggenheim Fellowship, Michael Berman photographs the Chihuahuan Desert to help others see the need to save it.
By Richard Mahler
I am looking at a Michael Berman photograph for the first time. Transported by his composition of featureless sky, jagged rocks and desiccated plants, I feel as though I am seeing the Chihuahuan Desert anew. More than that, I inhabit this wilderness. Displayed here, in a windowless basement at Western New Mexico University, is an expanse many would dismiss as bleak and forbidding: to be endured en route to somewhere else, preferably someplace greener and softer. One reviewer of last September's "Under A Dry Moon" exhibition dubbed these images "harsh and haunting." Yet I am drawn by the sublime clarity of Berman's black-and-white print. There is purity in the parched elements it delineates, and I find unexpected serenity in this primal outback.
"Most people approach the [desert] landscape with an idea of what the landscape will be," the photographer explains when we meet at his Mimbres Valley studio, eight months after the pictures leave Fleming Hall. "The idea that I have been working with is to show what's actually there."
A high-energy, born-and-raised New Yorker, Berman spends weeks at a time wandering the Southwest's "empty" quarters, documenting their little-known diversity with a boxy, large-format camera. He specializes currently in the most arid and least populated portions of the upper Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches from near Tucson east to Big Bend and from Silver City south into the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. It's an area Berman dearly loves and through his actions seeks to preserve.
"Aesthetics and art," he declares, "can provide a system of value as a way of seeing what's significant, beautiful and important." These lands are integral parts of a whole. Lose them — by draining aquifers, building roads, overgrazing livestock and the like — and a delicately structured ecosystem crumbles like a castle made of sand.
The indefatigable Berman roams the region in a dusty truck that boasts a mid-six-figure odometer reading. He listens to Spanish-language instruction tapes as he drives and, relying on dog-eared maps and handwritten notes scrawled on slips of paper, pulls over at any place that grabs his interest. There is no cellphone service where Berman goes and he eschews GPS. Tiny groceries give sustenance — tortillas, oranges, cookies, avocados — and a blacked-out pickup shell provides a makeshift darkroom. Hauling little more than camera gear and water, Berman tramps for miles through terrain bereft of shade and habitation.
"People don't understand how far I can walk," laughs Berman, a trim and athletic-looking 52-year-old. "A man will point to the edge of his ranch and say, 'I own everything up to the horizon.' I always walk to the horizon."
Compact and clean cut, with muscle-toned arms and an unwavering gaze, the photographer discourses in an intense cascade of real-life stories, mind-life insights and contrarian opinions. Berman regularly questions the status quo. His thoughtful humor is documented in well-etched smile lines. During an afternoon visit to the whitewashed studio and home in the Black Range foothills he shares with his wife, Jennifer, and a posse of dogs, Berman speaks eloquently about his art, concern for the environment, and recent receipt of a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. The grant helps support his ongoing projects along la frontera.
"I was very fortunate to get [the award]," allows Berman, his expressive hands rubbing either side of his forehead. The photographer's proposal was one of a handful funded among hundreds of applicants. "I think it's a great honor that [a review panel] outside the region would think our landscape is significant." He isn't used to people understanding — much less underwriting — his walkabouts.
In an essay that accompanied the Guggenheim application, Berman referred to the Chihuahuan Desert as "a kind of puzzle," composed of fragments that few try to put together. "Humans have churned it, stripped it, and let it wash away," he wrote. "What it could be, what it once was, is a beautiful mystery." Even among many who spend their entire lives anchored in the Chihuahuan, Berman suggests, it is alternately cursed, misunderstood and avoided.
Over the past decade Berman has assembled thousands of photographs, depicting not only the Chihuahuan Desert's surprisingly graceful, fragile grassy pockets and rare oases but its much larger swaths of overgrazed and abandoned basin-and-range country. Equally represented are lonely plains of gravel and snakeweed, knobby cones of lava and tuff, blocky ridges of fossil-laden limestone, and sprawled skeletons of hapless cows, birds and coyotes. Once in a while the weathered face of a person or the right angles of a human-made object appear in his portfolio. But seldom. After all, this is one of the least-populated, least-visited zones of North America. And this is even more true south of Columbus.
"I have a sort of romantic relationship with Chihuahua," concedes Berman, referring to Mexico's estado grande. "It's an incredibly diverse area; essentially the Mexican 'wild west.' Everything we have in the American Southwest they have, too, plus an overlay of indigenous cultures and their own unique versions of settlement."
New Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert begins just outside Silver City, Deming, Las Cruces or most any other town clustered near life-sustaining water. It is an environment where rivers sink beneath gray sand and spring dust storms famously conceal black asphalt, where ochre hills flatten into formless slopes and blue-white mirages shimmer below relentless sunshine.
"I'm comfortable in these places," says Berman. "I love looking at them."
Wandering alone in nature is the photographer's life-long passion, and taking pictures is a handy excuse to venture into a trackless defile. The work that results is shown in galleries, museums, universities, homes, books and magazines. In altered form, the images find their way into abstract multimedia collages and stamped metal plates.
"What I really like to do is look at things," says Berman. "In this culture it's very hard to get that license, so that's why I'm an artist and a photographer. It's not because I particularly love my medium — I've tried science and other things — but because it seems a legitimate reason to go see places."
A 15-year resident of Grant County, Berman began his sojourn in the mountain west in the mid-1970s as a student at Colorado College. After earning a biology degree and working in that arena for a time, he switched to photography and visual arts. Berman went on to earn an MFA from Arizona State University before relocating first to Silver City's Chihuahua Hill, then the Mimbres Valley.
The handsome, Southwest-style home he and his wife designed and built perches on a rolling tract of open land near the village of San Juan. Berman reminds a visitor that the juniper-studded grassland he inhabits above the trickling Mimbres is an outstretched finger of a complex set of interrelated ecosystems.
"The Chihuahuan Desert is primarily a smooth and rolling landscape," he says, sweeping his dark brown eyes toward the south, where the craggy Floridas loom like a lost pirate ship on a sea of scrub. "You get mountains that barely rise up to the pines as well as grasslands that reach up into these same ranges."
In recent years Berman has collaborated with Arizona writer Charles Bowden in like-minded offerings that "try to get at" the Chihuahuan through text as well as images. The duo, joined at times by Ju_rez photographer Juli_n Cardona, are creating a trilogy of books that began with the release of Inferno in 2006. A second volume will be published in 2009 and the third some time after that.
While their words and pictures consider the desert from varying perspectives, these men share an understanding Bowden outlines this way: "You go out there at first to see what there is to see. You climb big things, cross dunes, enter into fabled craters, make long marches on trails older than the English language. Slowly you learn to stop and look, then to fall to your knees and crawl, then to cease movement at all. You begin ignoring vistas, trash the entire baggage you've toted with you that tells you what things should look like and enter into what things are."