When I first saw the show “Historia de la Futura” (History of the Future), featuring photography by Julian Cardona and Michael Berman, curated by Nancy Sutor at the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juarez, I was, like everyone else I talked to, immediately taken by Cardona’s rich black and white portraits of humanity in tense situations.
Cardona has spent years honing his craft as photojournalist, which means he places himself in situations of friction between people,. Here he captures moments of tension, sadness and desperate hope of those who are in some way trying to better their lives by emigrating., or by those left behind to wait for word from their loved ones. Everyone who lives here on the border deals in one way or another with the tensions inherent in a frontier separating what for many are two unequal economies. Everyone is intimately aware of the struggles and problems and we respond to the portraits of humanity here reflected back to us .
Like Cardona, Michael Berman has also spent years perfecting his craft as a photographer. In Berman’s case, he uses a large format camera which for the last 15 years he has been schlepping around the desert on both sides of the border documenting the landscape.
At the opening, surrounded by friends I was less taken with Barman’s work which made me think first about William Henry Jackson, who also used a large format camera to document western scenes in the 1800’s, and then of Ansel Adams and his formalist landscapes and how during the 70’s everyone was suddenly obsessed with gray scales and tonal values in the great push to legitimize photography as an art form.
A cursory appraisal here made me think we have seen these before-waves of dunes, vast empty spaces with mountains in the foreground and also at the limit of the horizon. I could admire the formal elements here, although being printed digitally removed some of the crispness and tonal values which were certainly in the negative. I also gave credit to the fortitude it took to make these photographs, but,as I said, I was generally unmoved and viewed them in this show as something of a geographical context for Cardona’s photos, though certainly Berman’s original intention was for something more.
The something more came to me a few days later on a quiet Thursday morning with few people in the gallery, I was able to finally reach a much deeper appreciation of what is going on here. Like the desert itself, these photos require time to fully enter into them, and they reward, as the desert itself does, by allowing one to enter into almost a meditative state.
The desert is often described with words like forbidding, austere, unforgiving. All of this is true, and as much as many of us might love it precisely for those qualities, we also know it is not a place to play with or to take lightly. It is beautiful in its own way, but hard on living beings, and standing in front of these photographs with their curves and endless vistas stopping at mountains, one thinks of the people who have crossed here.
Not only recent immigrants, who cross this harsh landscape trying to get a better life, but the centuries of people who have come North and thus traversing these lands-the Conquistadors looking for El Dorado, the great Indigenous and Spanish trade wagons coming north from Mexico City to bring goods to trade with the Northern North American Tribes and countless others. All having to cross this vast harsh, arid landscape. Berman’s photographs allow us to sink into this region and recreate something of what people must have felt, and what each one continues to feel, when confronted with the necessity of traversing these enormous uninhabited spaces.
I came to realize that just as Julian Cardona’s superb photographs document the people who cross these lands, Michael Berman also gives us a slightly different way of documenting people by documenting the landscape through which they must traverse, and therefore giving us a sense of what they had to endure. Perhaps he intended these as formal studies, but it is by seeing through the empty spaces to a meditation on the people crossing them that we come to a richer appreciation both of these photographs and also something of humanity.
Checkpoint -Julian Cardona