When asked about his new book, Bruce Berman, might say it's about "nothing."
The "Seinfeld" comparison is not far off the mark. Like the television show, "Backlands: Photographs 1975-2000" explores nuances of everyday life, but instead of New Yorkers, Berman's photography reveals the nooks and crannies of smalltown America.
"I was traveling a lot in those years," said Berman, a New Mexico State University associate professor of photography. "I'm in Utah, I'm in Minnesota, I'm in Wisconsin, all these places. If you love photography, those are the best years because you're shooting your own stuff, just shooting. It's my personal work, not assignments."
Berman describes the book as 90 percent about people. From a man kissing a llama in the cover photo to some hitchhiking nuns and a man driving his 1953 Buick in a foggy California forest. Others in the book include a Dallas bridegroom with his shotgun on his wedding day and an Albuquerque taxidermist showing his wares. The book has a story without a beginning, middle or end. It was then. It is now. The reader can only experience it one page at a time.
"The challenge is to work with people and not just get a surface image, not get my picture and run but get to know something about the soul of the person and transfer that," Berman said.
On the book jacket, Berman reflects on the 121-page collection of photos as "a state of mind, done off 'The Grid.' Here we find battered people, people who love their cars, workers, the faithful, simple landscapes, places where there’s great generosity, absurdity, intimacy, a little mystery and where slow time still exists."
"Backland" is Berman's third book in the less than three years. His previous one titled "Cutting the Wire," is a collaboration with two poets. It won the Southwest Book Award in 2020.
A working photojournalist for national and international publications since the late 1960s, Berman began teaching at NMSU part time in 2006 and has been an associate professor focused on documentary photojournalism since 2008.
He loves teaching, especially passing along what he's learned to his students and giving them the benefit of his decades of on-the-job experience. Berman wants them to learn techniques but more than that, he wants them to find what resonates with them.
"If I were to summarize the book, I'd say it's a book about becoming, basically developing your viewpoint," Berman said. "Photographers call it 'finding your signature.' I think musicians call it 'finding your voice.' That's what this book is about – finding my voice in photography."
"Backland" started as a two-week project that turned into a six-month journey. For Berman, still photography is an adventure he will continue to the end of his life.
Video may be king in today's social media and internet environment, but Berman sees the still image as a more powerful way to capture a moment in time and cement its influence for future generations. That moment is what he calls "dropping the veil."
"If they let you in, if they'll drop that veil, you'll know it," Berman said. "Somebody will drop that veil, and then you're really looking at who they are.
"It's not actually a book about nothing. It's a book about me and walking between the lines, between the people I've encountered that I think you might want to encounter too."
"Backland: Photographs 1975-2000" is available online.