Michael Berman

Searching for some vestige of a wild place, New Mexico photographer Michael Berman found the understated Sierra San Luis Mountains along the Mexico border.

AIRED: January 11, 2020 | 0:26:44

Funding for COLORES was provided in part by:

Frederick Hammersley Foundation

...and Viewers Like You













>>Michael Berman: The first day my mind is like

a jumping bean on a hot pan.

What I'm going to do.

What I'm going to see.

What I.

What I.

In a few days, I settle down into a routine.

Get up hours before sunrise.

Walk and photograph into dark.

In a week I am lonely.

I wish I had someone to talk with.

In two weeks, I talk with myself.

In three weeks, I see things differently.

>>Berman: Sometimes we look for things that are

the realm of maybe dreams and magic, but that are

beyond our normal every day, and Sierra San Luis

is kind of the crossroads of both.

It's this understated little mountain range that

has somehow always been at the center of things and

is where I ended up on after a long journey of trying

to find some vestige of a wild place along the border.

>>Berman: The border lands are where things happen

and the reason for that is they're unsettled and

unsettled works both ways.

I think they're emotionally unsettled.

Oftentimes when I go to the borderlands I'm just

not in the right place and it's like oh, you know,

kind of feel a little edgy, kind of feel it's a

little dangerous, stuffs happening here.

And where am I going to sleep?

What's going to happen?

But literally, they're unsettled, they're some of

the least populated landscapes in both Mexico and

America and that actually is the reason why the border is there.

It's the hardest place to be.

You know, part of it is the Rio Grande where it's

forming these canyons and part of it is that it is

these desert lands where water is a premium and

it's the space that's much harder to navigate.

These are the landscapes that are all around us but

that we often don't see.

>>Berman: Part of what I'm wound up in is, is that

initial discovery and learning.

So it may be more about learning to see than

seeing that interests me.

Something like the Sierra San Luis is that it's,

it's a tale that's not yet told.

It's what it'll be in the future still in flux.

The Sierra Madres and the Rocky Mountains begin and end there.

Both the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Desert - one

side is the Sonoran Desert, the other side's Chihuahua.

All these things are coming together within the mountains.

>>Berman: One of the things in making

photographs now is, the relationship is much more

fluid so I'm able to carry a smaller camera that

literally I just strap it right here on my chest and

I'm often just making photographs as one would,

this is interesting to look at.

Sometimes I do apply an editorial that I've

learned, like oh, this would make a good photograph.

But there are reasons you make photographs and one is

to share experiences, with friends is something we do.

I had an old friend from high school who has on occasion

has come out to visit me and I've taken him into the woods.

I've left him alone in the dark and scared the wits

out of him so, I sent him like six photographs of

this landscape that I'm working in and at the end

I showed this head of this animal - it's kind of

dried out with these beautiful white large

canines and I told him it was a werewolf and he

actually believed me and I got an email that said,

"Tell me this isn't true," and he was totally freaked out.

"No, no, no, it's just a bear."

He was just like, "Michael's a crazy guy and if anyone's

going to see a werewolf and find them, it's him.

>>Berman: Something that I don't do as much of really,

is that thing; when you step back and look at the landscape.

You, you get perspective.

I often forget to do that because that's not how you

walk through a landscape.

You're not looking around, "Oh what a beautiful mountains."

You're like, "I don't want to step on...

I don't want to step on a cactus...

I don't want to step on a snake.

So often I think my photographs are inclined

to reflect like, looking at the ground, is really

the first and foremost thing.

But there is something more formal for me about

stepping back and, and what is this place.

I know what I'm looking for is a healthy ecosystem.

It's that simple.

And it's the thing I can never find.

>>Berman: In the center of the Sierra San Luis is a

grass and scrub oak kind of forest and then it's

surrounded by a horseshoe of mountains and it's

probably the best wolf habitat I've ever seen.

In my experience, you know I've seen them there and

they've tried to bring them back and they're

rumors that they may exist but at the same time

people I'm friends with have shot and killed the

wolves so it's a complicated world out

there and you have to learn to be part of that.

The photograph is the tool I'm using to connect me to

the landscape.

>>Berman: Often the things that are most important to

us don't exist in the structure of conscious thought

where you're doing something like what language does.

Where you go from one idea to another idea in a coherent way.

So what's nascent within the work it's really, this

thing I don't understand.

When you begin to bring words or images to

something, a lot of traditions have that idea,

is you steal the spirit, but yet it's one of the

ways we communicate and I've chosen to embrace this.

So, it is that realm of catch-22.

Is that you want to tell other people, you know,

like what's in these photographs.

It's the ineffable.

It's the thing, I can never see it's the thing,

I can never speak to.

I'm talking about the way humans see these

landscapes and these you know these landscapes are

inhabited by a broad spectrum of life and we're

only one little part of that.

How do you see what's there?


>>Eureka Gilkey: Twenty-five years ago, you

couldn't even walk down this street if you didn't live

in the neighborhood without some threat of physical violence.

It was considered one of the most dangerous

neighborhoods in the city of Houston.

What the city saw as poverty, blight, crime and

all the social ills that come along with that, the

artists saw as an opportunity to showcase their

work and use their work in a way to enrich the community.

Project Row Houses is a 25-year-old arts and

culture organization based in Houston's Northern Third Ward.

We're located approximately three blocks

from Emancipation Park, a ten-acre park bought by

freed slaves to celebrate their freedom.

We walk on the grounds of freed slaves here every

day and that's not lost on us.

When our most well-known founder Rick Lowe stumbled

upon these houses and he discovered this sight.

He saw it and the other founders thought as this

unique opportunity, right?

So they were able to acquire what was 22

shotgun style rowhouses.

They were able to acquire this site and really work

with the community, renovate, and bring some

life back into these houses, and that is how

the concept of Project Row Houses started.

We foster the creation and exhibition of art

in several ways.

One's through our artist rounds that we have in the

Fall and the Spring of each year, and what the rounds

do is they address whether it's a social, political,

economic, whatever issue, it's curated to address

a theme or issue that's happening in the neighborhood.

We had a couple of rounds ago black women artists

for Black Lives Matter.

A round before that dealt with the fact that art

could be used as a way to address prison reform.

Most importantly, we use the resources that we have

to ensure that the history and culture of this

community is not erased.

We were one of the first organizations to look at,

holistically, what could we do to use our resources

to enrich the community?

Not just beautify the space, but actually bring

some much needed services to bring affordable

housing into the community.

It's a place for young mothers to provide a

sustainable, supportive living environment for

themselves and their children, so they can

reach their professional and personal goals.

Project Row Houses has led, has been a leader in

changing the perceptions of what art is and what it

can do in terms of not only community

development, historic and cultural preservation,

empowering people to see themselves in a different way.

We get people from all over the country that come

in and just want to sit and learn, and this is not

some cookie cutter, here's a tool kit, go, take this in,

into your community, but really explaining to them what it

has taken over the twenty five years for us to get here.

Now it's an institution.

It is deeply rooted.

It's not just in Third Ward.

It is of the Third Ward.

It was this conceptual idea that has transformed

into what many consider to be one of the greatest

social sculptures in the world.

And it just came out of this idea that art could

transform and enrich a community.


>>Jess T. Dugan: My name is Jess T. Dugan.

I'm a photographer who works primarily with

portraiture and often within LGBTQ communities.

I'm here at the Frost Art Museum because my

exhibition To Survive on this Shore: Photographs

and Interviews with Transgender and Gender

Nonconforming Older Adults, is on display in Miami.

In this exhibition, one of my missions is to educate

about issues faced by transgender older adults.

>>Jordana Pomeroy: Jess is more than on the rise.

She's really quite established now as a

photographer who has very much a humanitarian view

of different communities.

>>Dugan: I feel that photography is a very

powerful storytelling vehicle and so I often

have my subjects look right out at the camera

because I really want the viewer to be engaged in a

moment and a relationship with them and to be met by

their gaze and have to think about how they feel,

being in that situation, I want them to reflect on

their own assumptions about the person that

they're looking at and for the act of viewing the

photograph to be a really energized, engaged one,

rather than a passive one.

I want them to be in a moment with them and look

them right in their eyes and feel this very human

connection that I think makes it very difficult to

discriminate against someone or to be hateful

toward someone if you've really come that close to

understanding who they are.

I made this project in collaboration with my

partner Vanessa Fabbre who's a social worker and

Assistant Professor at Washington University in

St. Louis and her research focuses on the

intersection of LGBTQ communities and aging.

So, when we met, we realized we had

overlapping interests from working within the trans

communities and we decided to create this project

that had both the portrait and the interview

narrative from each person.

>>Pomeroy: And it is funny because, you know, there's

always this conversation in museums about how much

text do you want in your text.

You should be looking at the work, but I think in

this exhibition the stories, they enhance the work of art.

They are a necessary component.

>>Dugan: The portraits immediately capture

people's attention, but then the stories allow us

to talk about some of the other issues, some of the

things like housing discrimination or

employment discrimination or fear that people have

about growing older as a transgender person or conversely

joys that they experience or triumphs of their life.

One of the subjects in the exhibition, Justin Vivian,

identifies as non-binary and she spoke about her

decision to take estrogen being motivated in part by

wanting to have a medical record of her transness

because she was worried if she grew older and lost

her ability to advocate for herself that she would

end up being treated as a man.

I met Susie and Cheryl a few years ago and it's

been really great to get to know them because

they're such love between them and they're such a

grounded-ness and commitment that I think is really amazing.

>>Cheryl: All we do is go out in public and just, just be public.

You know, don't hide.

Because we're proud of who we are.

We love each other.

We're not interfering with anybody's lives.

We just want to live our life the best we know how

and to show everybody it's, it's okay.

>> Dugan: Having their story and, you know,

reading about how they were together before Susie

transitioned and their marriage has morphed and

changed but they're more committed and in love than

ever before is really beautiful and really

exciting and I think it gives a lot of hope to

people who may be struggling with that question.

I think there is this focus on youth and there's

not a lot of representations of

transgender older adults and so they wanted to

share their stories and provide a kind of roadmap

for what a life could look like for younger trans

folks who in, in most cases have never seen an

older transgender person.

They've never seen an image of what it might

look like to grow older.

And so, I was incredibly moved by the extent to

which people wanted to help others by sharing

their own story.


Letterpress printing is a method of relief printing.

While technology shifted, letterpress printing was

the method of printing for over 500 years.

And it's no longer economically the fastest

way to print, but there's something that people are

still connecting to, and I think that's why it's

become an art and a craft.

My in-laws gave me a small printing press as a

wedding gift.

So I got this little printing press, and I

didn't know how to use it.

And so I started reaching out to people in the

letterpress community for help, because you can

search for it on the internet.

And there are some videos, but it's so much better to

go and meet with someone.

And I started to find that there were other people

that cared about this, and there were other people

that had printing presses in their basements or

garages, and it wasn't just people in their 20s and 30s.

It was also people in their 80s, so it was

fantastic to find this community that wanted to

help each other.

There aren't really secrets.

It's everyone wants to help letterpress printing

survive, and so everyone's willing to help each other

out, be it by finding equipment, or teaching a

technique, or learning a new process, or talking

about how to mix ink.

Everybody helps each other.

Letterpress printing, as it became an art form or a

craft, it still has that limited constraint of

working with the wood and the metal, and the wood

and metal type, and the ornaments.

And your collection tends to influence your

aesthetic as a shop.

If you think of someone like Hatch Show Print down

in Nashville, Tennessee, they're using blocks that

might have been used on a Johnny Cash poster and now they're

being used on a contemporary country music poster.

And to think about that collection is then

influencing your aesthetic, when I started

to acquire type, I became very interested in wood type.

I love the beauty of the letters.

I love that so many of the wood type fonts were made over

a hundred years ago, and we're still able to use them today.

I like how big and bold they are, and that was

just something I really connected with.

My dad actually makes wood type the same way that it was

produced for hundreds of years by all the

wood type manufacturers.

So Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, most people

have seen Hamilton on a little drawer pull, that's that group.

They made type using this pantograph method, which

is a dual tracer and router.

And so you trace the pattern of the letter or

the decorative ornament, and then it cuts the type

out of end grain maple.

A lot of my style and aesthetic came from the

fact that my dad, Scott, of Moore Wood Type,

started making type the historic way.

And so I started really exploring how these

ornaments could be used to create form and solids,

and even letter forms and characters.

And so I really like to use my dad's ornaments as

a main component of my work.

But I love the traditional tools of letterpress printing.

The wood and the metal type, the metal type's

really small and can get this very crisp line.

And some of the fonts are only available in wood and metal.

They never made it to the computer, which is just special.

And I just love the history that you know is

in every letter that you're setting.

It's been used before, and so being able to give it

life by continuing to print with it is just

something that I connect to as a tool, and as my

main driving force of my aesthetic as a printer.

[switch clicks on, belt turns]

[rollers tighten and release]

[handle clicks]

[press squeaks]

Letterpress printing in a lot of ways is almost meditative.

You become one with the press that you're using.

And if it's your own press, especially, you

start to hear and know the quirks of the press.

And they all have their own sound.

Each press has its own rhythm and music to it.

And especially when you're running one of the larger

presses like my Chandler & Price, C & P, with the

flywheel, you can feel that motion.

I stand against it, and you're a part of the

rhythm of the printing.

You're feeding it the paper, and it continues to run.

You hear the cha-chink, cha-chink of the cast

iron, or you hear the little glitches of the gears.

And it's a wholly immersive experience.

It really makes you slow down, because you can't go

faster than the press.

After getting my very first press, I had a

business for about a year trying to sell commercial work.

That just really wasn't for me.

I tried to do the craft fairs and the art fairs,

and I just really loved making, and I really love people.

So I came back to my alma mater where I received my

undergrad in graphic design, and they had a

letterpress shop that was sitting unused.

And so I had the opportunity to teach a

class to teach students how to be letterpress

printers, which quite honestly, I was still

learning myself, and continue to today.

I started teaching letterpress as an elective.

I had great groups of students for every semester.

So nine years, every semester, we've offered

letterpress printing, sometimes multiple sections.

It's wonderful to watch my students pull their first

print, because they pull that first print off the

press, and just kind of a light goes on.

Watching them discover how fascinating letterpress printing

can be is immensely satisfying and joyful for me.

"Pressing On: The Letterpress Film"

is a documentary about the survival of letterpress

printing, and specifically, the

community that have kept it alive.

It is both the older generation that held onto

the equipment and the knowledge through a time

when letterpress printing was not popular, and also

the new generation that are continuing to keep it going.

I would say that I'm a member of the new

generation, and as I became a part of the

community, and started to make these connections

with these 70 and 80-year-old printers, I

knew that that knowledge was gonna get lost if we

didn't record it in some way.

Through making the film, I got to see the way

letterpress had been a part of all of these

people's lives since they were young.

Some of the older printers in the community had

become apprentices when they were 12 or 15 years

old with their families, and so I got to hear the

way that letterpress printing had driven their

life path, and how special it is to them to know that

there's a young generation that still cares about

this process, this medium, this trade that they love.

The printers that held this knowledge, a lot of

it was never recorded in books.

I've taken on this role as educator and filmmaker,

and created a shop at a university and they seem

to connect to it, and so many of them have gone on

to actually buy their own presses, which I never imagined.

I love that it's a part of their lives, but now they

have their own presses that they're learning how

to use, and learning their presses' quirks.

I love to see that engagement, and that they

want to continue to help be a part of the

letterpress community.

Using letterpress printing equipment is what's

keeping it alive.

Having a wood type font sit in a drawer or behind

glass somewhere isn't gonna keep it going.

When you're continuing to print it, it not only is

putting oil back into the wood, and keeping those

characters in good condition, but by printing

it, you're then sharing it with more people, which is

keeping letterpress printing alive.

So it's both the use and the people that are

continuing to keep letterpress going.


New Mexico PBS dot org and look for COLORES under

What We Do and Local Productions.



Funding for COLORES was provided in part by:

Frederick Hammersley Foundation

...and Viewers Like You


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