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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review Vanishing Points Photographs by Michael Sherwin Reviewed by Blake Andrews “Epiphanies come in all flavors. Archimedes in the bathtub. Newton under the apple tree. For photographer Michael Sherwin it was a strip mall. On a visit to Suncrest Town Centre in his home of Morgantown, WV, Sherwin was rocked by the realization that he was standing atop a former burial ground of the local Monongahela..."

Vanishing Points. By Michael Sherwin.
Vanishing Points
Photographs by Michael Sherwin

Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany, 2021. 172 pp., 9½x12x¾".

Epiphanies come in all flavors. Archimedes in the bathtub. Newton under the apple tree. For photographer Michael Sherwin it was a strip mall. On a visit to Suncrest Town Centre in his home of Morgantown, WV, Sherwin was rocked by the realization that he was standing atop a former burial ground of the local Monongahela. Adding insult to injury, the remains had been exhumed during the mall’s development, then shipped for safekeeping to the wrong tribe, the Seneca in New York, a traditional enemy of the Monongahela.

Such an indignity is a sadly typical oversight, adding to the continuing horror of the native genocide spanning four centuries of American history. Native cultures have been decimated but many physical artifacts remain. They scatter the land in various forms, from murals to mounds to sacred grounds. Sherwin set off to photograph what he could find of such places, view camera in tow. The results of his nine year cross-country project have now been published by Kehrer Verlag as Vanishing Points.

Photographing native cultures presents a basic dilemma from the start. How does one illuminate a “vanishing point”? The book’s title states the crux directly, and Sherwin makes an admirable stab at follow-through. He picks around the edges of ancient sites and tribes, and hints at their presence indirectly. A picture of tire tracks winding into the distance puts a secondary twist on the title, while alluding to bygone nomadic predecessors. Depictions of natives in murals, petroglyphs, and reconstructed teepees are more concrete. There may no longer be active tribes gathering at Shiprock, Devil’s Tower, the Badlands, and Canyon de Chelly. But the photographic force of such natural wonders still creates a solid impression. It’s no wonder such places are considered sacred.

Natives engaged with these sites and many more (and still do in many places). In fact, it is tough to find any location in North America which doesn’t carry some native connection. For the contemporary photographer, that leaves a lot of latitude. One can point the camera just about any direction and capture something of importance, a fact which Sherwin leverages to an advantage. Vanishing Points collects a diverse range of raw material. The photos span the US — albeit perhaps more concentrated in northern Appalachia and the Great Basin — and vary widely in subject matter. There are plant closeups, cemeteries, interiors, rivers, small towns, and sweeping horizons. In many of the pictures the native connection is not visually apparent, and one must read the captioned rear index to fill in historic context.

One type of relic which has lasted into the present, and features prominently in Vanishing Points, is the burial mound. These rounded hills are found in all sizes throughout the country, rising up occasionally to great heights and imposing presence. Over the centuries many have become overgrown or fenced off or bypassed. At this point most appear indistinguishable from natural landforms. They might be mistaken for incidental hills, but to someone who knows what to look for — i.e. Sherwin — they are quite noticeable. He’s transformed them into the centerpieces of several nice pictures, tracing a loose thematic undercurrent of native structures still extant. The mound pictures close with a clever visual rejoinder, a photo of a sand pile near a golf center in Ohio. Looking very moundlike, but also so ephemeral it might blow away the next day, the photo offers a blunt take on cultural endurance, and the merits of forward-looking ethos. Earthworks built in the 1700s are still around. But for a contemporary sandpile, the prospects are more precarious.

Sherwin hits a similar note of historicism with another book motif, a series of modern detritus interjected at regular intervals as dreary still lifes. A smashed beer can, a party shaker, a foam ball, insect killer, a tarp fragment, and so on. All of these items — collected at native historic sites — seem rather disposable, especially in the context of great geologic forms and ancient relics. To their credit, they have endured, some with a layer of rust or grime to show for it.

It’s hard to shoot such grievous material without moralizing, and Sherwin pulls no punches. While his photographs are somewhat neutral — most of them well centered and static — the captions reveal traumatic backstories. One describes a gold mine and driving range on land promised to the Lakotas. Another describes a settler massacre. There is no way to sugarcoat the brutality of the so-called “Indian Wars”. Sherwin’s photos are powerless to change the past. But they can at least point a finger at the visual history. For him the lessons go past the epiphanic, touching on the deeply personal. “My spiritual views more closely align with those of Native American cultures and Eastern religion,” he writes. “We have gotten out of balance with our earth.” Borne of such rueful sentiments, Vanishing Points has a message of societal prescription. There is a grain tragedy in these photos, yes. But they have a redemptive quality. If these pictures trigger historical awareness, and perhaps the occasional epiphany, it’s one small step.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at