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Best Books -- Book Reviews: Gila

Gila. Photographs by Michael P. Berman.
Published by Museum of New Mexico Press, 2012.
Gila
Reviewed by David Ondrik

Gila
Photographs by Michael P. Berman
Museum Of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, 2012. Hardbound.  100 duotone illustrations, 8x11".


Michael P. Berman's Gila is an homage to southwestern New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, and in the pages of this two volume book he shows his respect and dedication to New Mexico's first, largest, and last wilderness. This is the landscape in which Aldo Leopold realized that the United States was on a disastrous course in our treatment of the land and its inhabitants, and Leopold set out to create the first "do-not-disturb" zone: the Gila Wilderness. It is also Berman's home and stomping grounds, an area that is a major component of his photographic œuvre.

Gila is an amazing book, and if you're interested in conservation or nature photography you should pick it up immediately. But there are some things about the physical object, not the contents, that I object to. While it's clear that there was a great deal of effort put into selecting the materials the book is made of, the covers of both volumes are an uncoated white paper stock that is lovely to hold. It is also incredibly susceptible to picking up every speck of dirt and every not-as-clean-as-you-thought fingerprint. My copy (which I unwrapped from the shrink-wrap myself) was covered in little balls of glue from the slipcase. While I think there's a metaphoric connection between the fragile state of the Gila and the fragile state of the book cover for Gila, it's clear that it will take a serious effort to keep the book in decent shape.


Gila, by Michael P. Berman. Published by Museum Of New Mexico Press, 2012.

With that out of the way, the two volume set is delivered in a gorgeous slipcase that is wrapped with a reproduction of one of Berman's photographs and delicately embossed with the title and photographer's name. Volume I is titled Radical Visions and contains an introduction by Mary Anne Redding, former curator of photography at the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors; Berman's own artist statement; and an introduction from Berman's long-time collaborator, Charles Bowden. Rounding out the volume are essays by thirteen authors who have profound connections to the Gila. They illuminate what makes this slice of the world special to them, and the topics range from ancestral longing to scientific analysis, environmentalism to sportsmanship. Each essay is relatively short and eminently readable. It is clear from multiple writings that the Wilderness status of the Gila is under constant threat; the lure of the money to be made from extraction industries is a constant siren song, tempting local and national agencies to push against the established boundaries. Taken as a whole the essays make clear the diversity of individuals brought together and unified by their love for, and desire to preserve, the Gila. 


Gila, by Michael P. Berman. Published by Museum Of New Mexico Press, 2012.
Gila, by Michael P. Berman. Published by Museum Of New Mexico Press, 2012.

Volume II is titled The Enduring Silence and contains Berman's photographs. The austere white cover has a photograph tipped into an embossed depression in the bookboard. The photographs are black & white, printed duotone on a beautiful paper stock, and they look absolutely amazing. For those unfamiliar, Berman works in the tradition of nature photography that Ansel Adams founded: everything in the photographs is crisp and focused, the subjects poetic. Both artists limit direct evidence of human modification of the land. While for Adams this was often the result of omission, Berman is photographing in an area humans have (mostly) been prevented from manipulating. There are few roads, so I'm fairly certain that Berman was actually trekking through the Wilderness to make these photographs, rather than creating images within 20 feet of a roadway. Berman's images are steeped in both metaphor and documentary, without any of the melodrama that Adams favored in his subjects. Berman is willing to show the sweeping vistas, the flowing river, the dead animals, and the burned trees — the whole picture of a place. The photographs feel entirely contemporary, even though he's working with material and subjects that are the stuff of earliest photography. 

Gila, by Michael P. Berman. Published by Museum Of New Mexico Press, 2012.

It is clear that the creation of Gila was a labor of love for a circle of passionate collaborators. It offers an in-depth portrait of our country's oldest designated wilderness, and serves as an appeal to the reader, as well: to appreciate and protect this unique landscape.—DAVID ONDRIK

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DAVID ONDRIK has lived in Albuquerque since the late 1970s. He was introduced to photography in high school and quickly appropriated his father’s Canon A-1 so that he could pursue this exciting artistic medium. He received his BFA, with an emphasis in photography, from the University of New Mexico and has been involved in the medium ever since. Ondrik is also a National Teaching Board Certified high school art teacher.

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