“It's still a place you can go for a long walk and not be on a marked trail, on a map … it's still a wild place,” says Michael Berman, a Silver City photographer whose photos from his latest work, Gila: Radical Visions/The Enduring Silence will be on display at 516 Arts in downtown Albuquerque beginning February 2nd.
“[The Gila] teaches us a lesson we haven't learned yet, which is that these ecological systems on which we depend … are amazingly complex,” says Berman. “I could spend my lifetime looking and barely understand it.”
“I do have, at times … a sense that I should wait," says Berman of his process. “Whether one calls it a voice or a feeling or whatever it is, I had a strong inclination that it wasn't really appropriate to photograph [yet].”
That Berman waited and listened to the wilderness for so long before speaking back in the form of his photographs comes as no surprise once he starts articulating his contemplative watch-and-learn philosophy when it comes to the Gila.
“Humans are only beginning to look at landscapes from a perspective that the land or nature could have value outside of human use,” he says. A smile creeps into his voice. “I have this quixotic view that we need the landscape more than it needs us.”
This spirituality, this reverence for a world that is at once infinitely complex and enchanting in its simplicity is evident in Berman's photographs: Clean, sparse images, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle—a gnarled tree trunk here, a patch of pine brush there—speak to a kind of electric silence wherein a vibrant ecosystem is breathing and humming and flexing just beneath the surface.
Sustaining this attitude of respect toward the wilderness—that there is something worth preserving and learning from this vast and unknowable ecosystem that extends beyond what we can take from it is what drives Berman's work on the Gila.
“These complex, wild systems are really, really, really fast disappearing,” says Berman. “We're beginning to really orient everything towards using the Gila and also, you know, trying to make money from it.” Berman refers to a pervasive cultural attitude about the wilderness and also, specifically, to a new proposal that would allocate state funds toward building a dam on the Gila River at the edge of the National Park. The Gila River is one of of the last free-flowing rivers in the country, unaltered by dams or levees, and advocates of the Wilderness are staunchly opposed to it.
Berman's show at 516 Arts kicked off last Saturday with a book signing and panel discussion that raised funds for both 516 Arts and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. The fundraiser reception was one of three that have been planned using the book as a focal point to raise money and awareness for the conservation of the Gila. “We are the ones who are responsible for it,” says Berman. “Us folks in New Mexico. It's both our treasure and our responsibility.”