Michael Berman: The States Project: New Mexico
As a New Mexican photographic aficionado, it’s hard not to know of Michael Berman’s landscape work, based solely on the significant awards he has earned. Not only was he our resident Guggenheim Fellowship winner in 2008, but he won the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts of New Mexico in 2012. I learned of Michael’s work probably over a decade ago through private photography dealers Scheinbaum & Russek Ltd. as he stood out as one of the few contemporary artists they represent (since they mostly specialize in the estates of Beaumont Newhall and Eliot Porter). Michael was curated into a fantastic local show at the Santa Fe Art Institute in 2008 by Nancy Sutor organized with the Lannan Foundation and titled History of the Future that traveled to Texas, North Dakota, Ohio, and Louisiana. This exhibition featured photographs by Julián Cardona and Berman who for over 30 years focused on the wild places in the desert southwest and the people crossing the lands where Mexico and the United States come together (mostly shot in Arizona and New Mexico). This work is strong, finely printed, and haunting all at the same time. I became enamored with Michael’s Plates work that almost seemed the antithesis of his large-scale, perfectly printed ‘fine prints’. Plates is a body of work made up of small, black and white images mounted to metal and painted, in a messy, painterly, non-organized sort of way. They are meant to hang in a grid and are reminiscent of retablos from the Mexican and South American cultures. This work reveals an aging over time that speaks to the continuity of and persistence of the environment despite the stress it can endure.
Michael Berman was born in New York City in 1956 and went west to Colorado College where he studied biology and worked with Peregrine Falcons. He lives in Southwestern New Mexico in the Mimbres Valley and is a founder and current board member of the Gila Resources Information Project.
He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 to photograph the remnant grasslands of the Chihuahuan Desert. In 2009, the University of Texas-Austin published “Trinity” the third book of the border trilogy The History of the Future with the writer Charles Bowden. His photographs are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Amon Carter and the Museum of New Mexico. He has received Painting Fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Wurlitzer Foundation, and grants for his environmental and photographic work from the McCune and Lannan Foundations. He is currently working on his sixth book in the Sierra San Luis in Northern Mexico.
The Gila is a place in Southwest New Mexico, and it is a river that flows unbounded through three primeval canyons from the volcanic rim of the Mogollon Mountains to the border of Arizona. The Gila is one of the last great forests on the planet over a million acres of woodlands that descend from high reaches of douglas fir, into meadows of giant ponderosa pines until it is bounded by sweeps of piñon juniper that falter in desert grasslands. At its heart is the Gila Wilderness – the place where the idea of preserving wilderness was conceived.
Sometimes it is hard to separate the wilderness from the word wilderness. Words are such beautiful things. With them we can lay down in thin straight lines a little selection of what we perceive from a realm of infinite complexity, or tell our stories with our finite breath. Words are the thing that makes us human, and separate us from time and place. We use them to put ourselves at the center, and to declare a kind of dominion over the things that do not speak with our language.
Photographs are not without their problems. We look at one thing that is of many things, select it and preserve it. And sometimes we even think we have a little moment of truth. When instead we should consider each photograph reflects an infinite number of things we have missed. We should not forget how few things – see a picture on the surface of a photograph.
Wilderness is not a word, nor is it a photograph. The ideal of wilderness is a realm we have left untrammeled. The real of wilderness are diminished and small places bounded on maps. I find in wilderness a sanctuary for the possibilities of life and existence. It is the place that is undefined. I will ask the forgiveness of those poets who use unconfined words, and of photographers who revel in small things, for my seeing in wilderness something beyond words and images.
When I finish a body of work there are always so many images that are left behind, and I hate to see things put away in boxes. It is the death of art. When I was young I wanted to bring a little more life into my work and I used thousands of these images in installations, and then I started to cut things up … my negatives, my prints and the paintings I did on aluminum, and from these fragments I began to make the plates.
A touch stone for the plates are the retablos painted on pieces of metal and tin from Mexico and South America. The years of handling and exposure to the environment often lends them a deep beauty rooted in a sense they have endured through time because they have a purpose. They let us know that life and the world are not as solid as we might think and when we attend to seeing small things, one after the other, new things will emerge.
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Robert Stivers: The States Project: New MexicoApril 3rd, 2016
Caitlyn Soldan: The States Project: New MexicoApril 2nd, 2016
Will Wilson: The States Project: New MexicoApril 1st, 2016
Kate Russell: The States Project: New MexicoMarch 31st, 2016
Laurie Tümer: The States Project: New MexicoMarch 30th, 2016