Originally published in Points West in Spring 2015
Wyoming Grasslands: Photographs by Michael P. Berman and William S. Sutton
By Frank Goodyear Jr.
Wyoming Grasslands: Photographs by Michael P. Berman and William S. Sutton, a partnership exhibition between the Wyoming Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Draper Natural History Museum, commenced in 2012 as an initiative to photograph Wyoming’s grasslands. The project has now evolved into a major exhibition touring Wyoming’s museums, libraries, and art centers. Accompanying the exhibition is a book with essays by Dr. Dan Flores, A.B. Hammond Professor Emeritus of Western History at the University of Montana; Dr. Charles R. “Chuck” Preston, Draper Natural History Museum Curator; and Heard Museum Director Emeritus Frank Goodyear, along with Berman’s and Sutton’s photographs. Finally, the project includes an ambitious education program on grassland ecologies and photography.
The idea behind the project is to use photography to draw attention to these grasslands, among the most threatened ecologies in the world. During the past three years, Berman and Sutton have crisscrossed Wyoming—from Devil’s Tower National Monument to Thunder Basin National Grasslands and from Shirley Basin to dozens of private and public landscapes in almost every corner of Wyoming. They captured images at all seasons of the year, spending countless days and unknown hours in the field, to capture images of these oft–forgotten places. Their photographs are testimony to their own endurance, commitment, and dedication to these newly-discovered places.
The project has generated tens of thousands of digital files from which organizers selected specific images for the exhibition. The intent has been to cast the net widely to show prairie grasslands, sagebrush-steppe, and the grasslands of the foothills. Whatever Berman and Sutton encountered on these modern day grasslands, if it interested them, they photographed it. The images are as diverse as the grasslands themselves: vast expanses of prairie lands; low hanging, dramatic skies; cultivated hayfields; watering holes and dried up river beds; vestiges of an earlier time in images of broken down corrals, barns, and abandoned, one room school houses; skeletal remains of animals as well as giant wind turbines; oil and gas rigs; power plants fracking pools; and other signs of modern day industrial incursions.
Among these thousands of images, some of the best are simply images of pure nature: healthy families of grass, rolling hills of sagebrush, cottonwoods that sparkle a radiant spring hue, and rivers and their banks that expose the rubble, earth, and roots that support the grasses above. There is much to consider.
Berman and Sutton stand in a long line of photographers, both historic and contemporary, who have photographed the American West, a subject that has broad popular appeal. Many, if not most, of these photographers have chosen to define the American West by its picturesque snow-capped mountains; its broad, mighty rivers and crystal lakes; and its deep canyons and forested panoramas. This scenery has become the iconic imagery for how the natural West is defined visually.
For the Wyoming Grasslands, Berman and Sutton have taken a less traveled road in confronting grasslands with a camera. In doing so, they have discovered the inherent difficulties in capturing the grassland image. What are these difficulties, one might ask? The first is the sheer enormity of the scale of the grassland’s landscape. No other physical characteristic better defines America’s grasslands than their overwhelming magnitude. Author Gretel Ehrlich, in her book The Solace of Open Spaces (1985), allows an old Wyoming cowboy to express her feelings about the plains. “It’s all a bunch of nothing, “she writes, “wind and rattlesnakes—and so much of it you can’t tell where you’re going or where you’ve been, and it don’t make much difference.”
Scale also produces other factors that impact the photographers. Some have called it the unwelcoming, even intimidating, nature of the grasslands. The argument goes that you’re not particularly well received when you show up “there.” Author and conservationist William deBuys, writing about Michael Berman in an article on grasslands, says of the landscape, “They demand strength and persistence and loyalty. They turn away the insincere.” Finally, grasslands are complex ecosystems; they are slow to unveil their “mysteries.” It takes time to appreciate them; it takes time to tell their stories.
What do these inherent qualities of America’s grasslands mean to photographers like Berman and Sutton as they set out to acquire grassland images? And just how do they go about the task of photographing them? These photographers’ approaches to capturing the grasslands are not dissimilar; they bring a physical and mental strength to their work. Their routines are, in equal parts, ritualistic and reverential.
The ritual begins with the old pickup truck outfitted for a prolonged camping trip. It takes them far off the beaten path, where social interactions are few, if any, and long days trudging the land are routine. Berman says of this ritual, “It takes time and miles to begin to see. ” And Sutton talks about walking miles and listening to the landscape. Into their routine, they bring with them a profound respect for the land; they approach their subjects with a humility and eagerness to learn. It is the land, above all else, that is important to them. “Let the land guide you” is the advice they repeat to themselves and give to their students. And do not expect it to be easy. Even over the course of a lifetime, they realize their knowledge of the land will be incomplete.
This shared ritual and reverence results in landscape images from Berman and Sutton that reveal certain things in common. Both photographers prefer to make frontal images in a traditional panoramic format. Their photographs have both a hard, documentary edge, as well as a distinctive, artistic personality. They inadvertently tell stories about real life things, even though the photographers do not consider themselves storytellers. But while Berman and Sutton may be considered “kindred spirits,” for both, photography is a deeply personal and individualistic act. Who are these two individuals?
Michael Berman was born in New York City in 1956. He earned a BS in biology from Colorado College in Colorado Springs in 1979 and an MFA in Photography from Arizona State University in 1985. He lives and works in San Lorenzo, New Mexico. He received a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship in order to photograph the grasslands of the Chihuahuan Desert. Until recently, he has used a view camera to make images; in 2012 he began using a Leica Monochrome, the only digital black and white camera on the market with a very small digital file. He uses this camera because it optimizes his need to record the magic of simple things or, as he puts it, “the complexity innate in systems, the dimensionality of seeing, and the nature of what is significant in life.” About this new equipment, Berman explains, “…the difference between what I could do three years ago (2012) when we started this project, and what I can do today, is profound. In seconds, I can make an image that would have taken days in the not-so-distant past. It changes everything.”
Berman’s photographs often seem to be less than optimistic; he talks about much of the grasslands that he has encountered as “having no dimensional complexity.” By this, he means their natural state has been badly compromised. He seems drawn to the sand, dirt, rubble, and hardscrabble of a landscape that has known better times. And yet, the black and white images that he renders—from what appear to be such mundane subjects—radiate with beauty. He is literally able to find beauty in nothing. In other images, his approach is more celebratory, marking the quiet, intimate clumps of grasses, the open skies with billowy clouds, or the romance of a sunset on a vast empty plain. In all of Berman’s images, one understands that he has a relationship with the land that is deeply personal and profoundly comprehended.
William Sutton was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1956; he was raised in New York State, Scottsdale, Arizona, and the suburbs of Chicago. He studied at Arizona State University and completed his BFA and MFA in photography at the University of Colorado in Boulder where he now lives. In 1981, he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in photography—the same year he also met Michael Berman. Sutton also uses a digital camera and shoots in color; he gave up black and white photography around 2003 and says emphatically, “I love color.” He pushes color boldly, willing to “try anything to make a picture work,” he notes, but also recognizes that once color “breaks down the validity of the visual world, it has gone too far and doesn’t work.” His preferred cameras are a Nikon D800 single lens reflex camera and a Canon DSMark III. The Nikon has a very large digital file; the Canon’s is much smaller. He uses both cameras with zoom lenses.
As with his friend Michael Berman, the land itself is everything to Sutton. But he is more of a romantic than Berman. He attaches the idea of Eden to the American West, calling it a land that “remains a place of hope, dreams, and aspirations.” He worries that the West that he loves is changing forever and runs the risk of only being remembered by photographs like his. Sutton’s use of color in his photography enhances his romantic bent; it allows him to heighten or turn down the intensity of color to increase the magical realism of his images. Sutton believes that to make a successful landscape picture “you have to create a coherent structure, with balance, and with lines and shapes that are beautiful.” It is not enough to describe something with the camera. When all is said and done, what Sutton is consciously setting out to do is to create beautiful pictures—images that must have the language of art ingrained in them.
In 2015, America has become a nation of cities, suburbs, and urban sprawl. Tourists visit wilderness sites in their cars. In this context, one wonders if there is any perceived value to Wyoming’s grasslands, or for that matter, to any of the threatened ecologies around the world other than commerce. Perhaps the importance of these places will only be valued when they are lost forever?
Michael Berman and William Sutton see, and understand, the threats the natural world faces. To both photographers, the importance of nature and wilderness is paramount. It adds meaning and relevance to life. If their work can help others to understand the value of land in our world, then they have realized an important goal.
Together, the work of these photographers commands our attention. It embraces the monumental scale of the grasslands. It divines the small and intimate, the quiet and reflective. The images are dark, fearsome, and brooding, or drenched with the heavenly light of the Creator. They are hot and cold, dry and wet. The images invite the viewer into the spaces the photographers have created, and have come to cherish, with their cameras. The reality of this viewing experience can be transformative; the photographs activate our senses and leave no emotion or sensation untouched.
Wyoming Grasslands: Photographs by Michael P. Berman and William S. Sutton is on view in the Center’s John Bunker Sands Photography Gallery, June 4 – August 9, 2015. The accompanying book of essays and photographs is available for purchase from our Museum Store.
Along with Charles R. Preston, Frank Goodyear is co-curator for the Grasslands exhibition. He was the director of planning and development at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in the mid-1990s. His museum career began in 1972 as a curator at the Pennsylvania Academy in Philadelphia. During his tenure there, when the facility closed for renovations, he was acting curator of American Painting and Sculpture at Yale University Art Gallery. He earned a BA from Yale University and a MA from the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture at the University of Delaware. Currently, he is retired and lives in Cody, Wyoming, and Paradise Valley, Arizona.