My walkabout with Michael

Following in the footsteps of a Western photographer

  • Brioso Flat, image 002

    Michael Berman
  • Brioso Flat, image 018

    Michael Berman
  • Brioso Flat, image 039

    Michael Berman
  • Michael Berman, photographer

    Pat Toomay

Page 2

It wasn’t until late that first afternoon, as we stumbled into a burn area below the crest of Black Mountain, that Berman finally unpacked his camera. It wasn’t digital; he was shooting film, large format.

Berman focused on the few surviving ponderosas. “Ponderosas feed on fire,” he remarked. “They need it. So a lot of good is going on here.”

The sun was getting low when we headed back to camp. Suddenly, I was more than tired. “Michael, how many ridges have we crossed since leaving Christie Creek?”

“Just keep the drainage in mind, the way the water flows.” He pointed west. “If we walk north, we’ll eventually get where we need to be.”

We plowed on. Finally, the landscape looked familiar. We reached our campsite and  ate. If there was a canine lullaby that night, I didn’t hear it.

The next morning we were both up before dawn. Brewing coffee, Berman said: “We should strike camp.”

“What? But I was just getting comfortable here!”

“Me, too. But there’s an obscure canyon I stumbled into 30 years ago, northwest of Quentin Hulse’s spread. I’m getting a pull to it.”

Quentin Hulse was a Gila legend. Rancher, outfitter, guide, he’d lived in a small house at the bottom of a canyon, without electricity, plumbing or running water, for 50 years. Berman knew him well. Before Hulse died in 2002, they would get together to debate environmental issues. Berman came to understand the wants and needs of the ranchers. It gave him a unique point of view, far from the polemics of the enviro-wars. Nowadays, Berman’s input is routinely sought by locals to resolve disputes.

“When old ranchers die, there’s an opportunity for change,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to shift the paradigm.”

He explained the complexities of public-land grazing allotments, and management plans, noting the more common abuses: unrepaired fences, watersheds “cowed-out” by overgrazing. When old ranchers died, new management plans could be drawn up, protecting the land from overgrazing.

“Of course, the new plans have to be enforced,” Berman said. “That’s always the hard part.”

He spotted a spring that trickled off down a deep draw. “We should follow the water,” he said. The gravel descent was steep –- huge boulders, thickets of brush, treacherous footing. At the  bottom, a stream flowed under a canopy of mature cottonwoods. On either side of it, rock formations rose. I kicked off my shoes, slipped my feet into the cool water. Berman scrambled across the streambed, lit up with a new kind of energy. He returned, grinning: “Cows haven’t been in here for a while. The willows are back.”

We started off down the stream, but almost immediately he stopped. “Look,” he said, pointing up at the cliff face. There, in a corner of a long, horizontal hollow, sat a small structure with curved adobe walls and a single square window.

“Cliff dwellers?”

“Probably,” Berman said.

“It’s amazing, really,” I said. “The way your instincts took us directly to this spot.”

He gave me a look.

“I mean, this morning you got a pull, we followed it, and here we are confronted by thousand-year-old ruins that were probably built by the last people who cared about this place as intensely as you do. You’ve got the gift,” I said. “It’s in your photos.”

Berman just shrugged.

He’s uncomfortable with compliments and dislikes dwelling on his past. When he was 3, his parents flew into Montego Bay for a Jamaican vacation. Foul weather forced a hard landing, and the plane disintegrated on impact. Berman barely remembers his parents. He was raised by his Irish grandmother in New York City.

He graduated in 1979 from Colorado College, with a B.A. in biology. His interest in photography was piqued by a course in his final year at school. After graduating, he worked for five years studying peregrine falcons, all the while experimenting artistically, taking pictures, painting, often combining the two in collages on canvas.

Later, while taking post-graduate art courses at the University of Colorado, Berman realized that landscape photography could fuse his ecological interests with his artistic inclinations. So he secured an MFA in photography at Arizona State. After that, he lived the life of an aspiring ecological photographer, moving here and there, educating himself on environmental issues, mounting exhibitions, scrambling for funding. In the early ’90s, wanting to sharpen his focus, he settled in the wilderness area around the Gila River, near the New Mexico-Mexico border. There he proposed and completed the New Mexico BLM Wilderness Photography Survey. He also became a founding board member of the Gila Resource Information Project, a local environmental group.

Berman’s repeated forays into the desert regions eventually led to a three-year fellowship from the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center to photograph the Gran Desierto, on the southwestern border of Arizona and Sonora. That project led to his first publications: Sunshot, in 2006, with text by Bill Broyles. The books with Bowden followed.

High Country News Classifieds