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underworld figures. In 1969 he had his nose broken when someone shoved Berman’s first Ansco Memar camera against his face when he was photographing a riot between the Chicago police and the Weathermen. He tries to explain why he keeps returning to the streets and shooting complete strangers despite the risks involved. “They have lots of reasons to mistrust me,” he says. “Maybe they think my camera is a weapon, but it’s not. It’s a tool of education. If I didn’t have a camera, I would be ignorant. When I first came to the border I would shoot people passing by from a distance. Probably because I felt I was an outsider. I would try to make myself as invisible as possible. I was kind of a chameleon. But now that this place is starting to become my home, I have to look people in the eye. I have to know who they are. It’s about the direct gaze. Smack me in the mouth if you want to, but I want us to look at each other. It’s about engagement!’ Critics have praised Berman’s work for its “use of saturated colors, silhouettes, slick surfaces, foreshortened subjects and complex juxtapositions of positive and negative space!’ He shrugs off this contemporary art jargon as mostly just a lot of “foo-foo.” He admits that color is a central element in a series of chromogenic prints that he’s done, including “Vaquero with Cigarette: 1985” and “Nebraska: 2005,” which depict the exuberant hues of some of the buildings on Alameda. But he’s looking for much more than an aesthetic effect. I wanted to document the continuity here, the history. I wanted to show that there’s zones where walls are still painted by hand with these bright colors today just as they were more than 20 years ago. In most streets now they don’t have hand-applied paint anymore. Some people from north of the freeway might think these colors are “too much” or even “over the top.” But that’s why I live in this neighborhoodthe exuberance. I don’t feel comfortable anywhere else. Berman arrived in El Paso in 1975 when he was offered a job teaching photography at UTEP’s journalism depart ment. He no longer teaches there, but he’s still in the city. I’ve often asked myself why I’m still here. My wife at the time wanted us to go back East. But when I found this empty, run-down loft at the Old Brewery, something told me I had to stay here. I don’t know, maybe that contributed to our divorce. But I decided my stand in life had to be made on Alameda. And I didn’t flake out. I stayed on it. I needed to do something consistently. There’s nothing else I’ve been doing consistently in my life except this project. The result of this three-decade-long project is thousands of photographs hung up on the walls, stored in drawers, pinned up on poster boards, saved in his computer files and strewn everywhere in Berman’s apartment studio. There’s not much except photography in Berman’s home; the place is almost monastic. So maybe it’s not that surprising that he takes most of his photos on his knees. Berman says that he prefers shooting from a low angle looking up. Picturetaking, for some, is a form of prayer. Berman confesses that he’s always been attracted to those who see shooting as a mission. His friend and mentor Roy Morsch, whom he gigged with in Manhattan in the ’70s, taught him “to carry the camera like a ball and chain.” Berman was also “completely taken with the mission” of the FSA \(Farm Security 1930s, especially Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Marion Post Walcott, and Russell Lee. He has no problems describing his own work as politically engaged. “I’m a Socialist,” he says. When Dorothea Lange came to the border in the 1930s \(her images of El Paso during the Depression are now the denizens of the border she photographed were pretty much the same people Bruce Berman has been shooting since the ’70sMexican women crossing the bridge, migrant workers, residents of the shanty towns, los de abajo. The underdogs. But whereas Lange focused mostly on poverty and destitution, Berman sees something else. I don’t see poverty. I see dignity, optimism, dreams. I spent a summer once documenting the lives of a fam MARCH 24, 2006 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29