Berman's Quixotic View of the Gila Wilderness on Display at 516 Arts
The Gila Wilderness unfurls from the northernmost point of Silver City for miles, untouched and untamed. Along with the Aldo Leopold Wilderness and the Blue Mesa Wilderness, the Gila forms the almost three million acres of the Gila National Forest. A haven to Ponderosa pines, a coursing river and native fauna, the Gila Wilderness has been unmarred by human touch since it was declared the country's first wilderness area in 1924. There are no roads, no paths—even bikes are prohibited in the undeveloped wilds of the Gila.
“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.”
And he very nearly has: Berman has been drawn to the mysterious wilds of Southern New Mexico ever since he got sidetracked on a road trip to Mexico in 1978 and spent five unexpected days in the Gila. In the 1990s, he moved to Silver City with his wife, and has spent the last 20 years with the wilderness more or less in his backyard. And now, after 34 years of quiet observation, Berman finally turned to the Gila as the inspiration for his next book.
“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.
“[We create an] illusion of what is significant in the landscape by focusing on the grand anomalies: the big mountain, and great rift or canyon ... we have not quite come to terms with how complex and subtle a living system is.”
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.”
Silver City photographer Michael Berman shows images of the Gila Wilderness at 516 Arts in Albuquerque.