Seeing, Intimately

Among old friends, I have a reputation for finding art off the beaten path. I find a rich artist and I want to really know them, so I read about them – bio, influences, sometimes reviews. Which inevitably leads to other rich artists. In my late teens, for example, I suddenly “got” Bob Dylan, and when I pursued his influences, the treasure chest of 20th century American music popped open in and for the first time I tasted the secrets of country music, blues, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.

For the past fifteen or so years I’ve been reading through the rich work of Charles Bowden, whose overheated paeans to his Tucson and now New Mexico home country make him a sort of drunken choirboy poet-laureate chronicler of the southwest and its discontents. This weekend I picked up a copy of Inferno, an essay Charles Bowden wrote about the desert which is wrapped around the photographer Michael P. Berman’s intimate images of the southwestern desert. And thus a new window opens.

Berman’s photographs stand out for their lack of harsh contrast, so typical of desert photographers (yours truly included). His desert is more ethereal, alive. More powerful is his close-up and personal perspective on so much of the desert: the crest of a sand dune, a desiccated body of a mountain goat on rocks, discarded bottles and bedsprings. Both Bowden’s essay and Berman’s photographs bespeak an intimacy with the desert that is unusual, as if both had spent many hours crawling around on rough rock hot enough to burn their hands and feet to blistered shreds.

High Country News published a wonderful video excerpt of Berman discussing his art with New Mexico author Pat Toomey

When I first am there, I’m going to make the most clichéd photographs, the really standard ways of seeing the landscape that we share. But then, if I spend a lot of time, those things get really boring, they’re not interesting. … The more I look, the more what’s there becomes sort of magical. It can never happen or it can take weeks or it can take visiting a place again and again and again and again and then all of a sudden, you develop a relationship.

That’s a different kind of art than most of us practice. But it’s also a different way of walking through life and looking at what we see. Most of us probably aren’t intimate enough with our lives that we’re seeing “what’s there … magical” and instead we’re making do with “the standard ways of seeing … that we share.” It also occurs to me that this is probably also true of how or whether we see those around us, those we mean to love, but I think I’ll avoid going there for now.

For an obsessive traveler and amateur photographer like me, this is tough to do – there is so much in the world I’m curious to see and I already know I’ll only have time for a fraction of it. Berman’s comments remind me that I will likely see a lot more if I choose now to see a lot less of what everybody sees.

H/T High Country News, who also have an extended interview with Berman here.




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