Malheur & Me: A Photographer’s Playground


Written by Rich Bergeman/Photos by Rich Bergeman

The Malheur Refuge and surrounding territory are a photographer’s playground. My first visit was back in 1985 on a University of Oregon workshop, when we bunked in the Malheur Field Station and took turns using the tiny darkroom there at the time (I still remember the shock of turning on the light and seeing my new box of 4×5 film sheet lying open on the table!). Since then I’ve returned to the Malheur Country every few years in the company of a handful of fellow photographers from my hometown in Corvallis.

Originally a large-format black-and-white photographer, I tend to be more interested in relics of human habitation on the land than in the wildlife and the scenery. Over the years I’ve enjoyed prowling inside the old Pete French era barns–the famous Round Barn and the Long Barn near Frenchglen–as well as other historic structures near the refuge, like the now disappearing ghost town of Blitzen and the BLM-preserved Riddle Ranch on the slope of Steens Mountain.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, in the fall of 2019, that I discovered the Pete French Sod House Ranch, which I was surprised to see had a long barn of its own, surrounded by an impressive stockade of 100-year-old juniper posts. Even though this complex of historic buildings is not far from the Refuge Headquarters and Visitors’ Center, I had never been there when it was accessible. For most of the spring and summer it is off limits to visitors because the huge century-old cottonwood trees there provide a nesting area for herons, cormorants and other big birds. What a find! With nearly a dozen well-preserved old structures to explore–including a bunkhouse, carriage shed, small cabin, stone cellar, and long barn–we spent an entire afternoon there (under the helpful and watchful eye of the attendant).

By the time of my 2019 visit, I had moved on from the big film cameras and was exploring the world of infrared photography with a couple of converted digital cameras. This accounts for the shift of tones in the images shown here–where greenery is rendered as a highlight and bright blue skies turn dark, dramatically setting off the clouds. While I still am habitually drawn to structural relics, I have discovered that the IR camera is a marvelous tool for seeing the high desert landscape, such as the trio of snags against the wide horizon that I captured just outside the Crane’s Nest gift shop at the Refuge Headquarters.

As the Arnold used to say, “I’ll be back.”

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