Michael Sherwin is a 44 year-old photographer originally from Cincinnati in Ohio, USA, but spent nine years in the American West. Now living in West Virginia in the mountains of Northern Appalachia, he is an Associate Professor of Photography and Intermedia. In his series Vanishing Points, Michael photographs significant and sacred sites of Native American importance.
How did you get interested in photography?
I was actually interested in art before I was interested in photography. I grew up with a mother who was an art teacher and a father who shared his interest in architecture. I did quite a bit of drawing as a kid, especially engineering and mechanical drawing, and thought I wanted to be an architect. Then I took my first cross country road trip with my best friend at the time in the summer of 1994 after my freshman year at Ohio State University. This was my first real experience of the American West outside of a few family vacations when I was younger. I was completely blown away by the landscape and ended up shooting hundreds of pictures on crappy disposable cameras. Although the pictures were nothing special, I enjoyed the process of photography more than I expected. When I returned to school, I decided to enroll in a beginning black and white photography course. I really got into the class and spent lots of time crafting my prints in the darkroom. The professor must have seen something in me and encouraged me to take another class. The rest, as they say, is history.
Introduce us to Vanishing Points
In 2011, I discovered that our local shopping center had been built upon a 2,000-year-old sacred burial ground and village site of the Monongahela tribe. I frequently shopped at the Center and this new revelation transformed my understanding of the landscape and place I called home. Reflected in the scene in front of me was an ancient, spiritually important and hallowed landscape clouded by the tangible constructions of our modern culture. I am fascinated by the persistence of the landscape and in the apparent disparity between Western and Native views of the sanctity of the land. I felt compelled to document the site and the resulting photograph inspired a project that I have been actively working on for the past seven years.
Your photographs reveal the evidences of our society on ancestral places, what are your intentions?
I certainly feel like the historical ramifications of our current occupation on this continent is much darker than we’ve been taught. Some have referred to our treatment of indigenous peoples as an American genocide, and I would have to agree. In the name of Manifest Destiny, westerners expanded across the continent claiming the land was theirs by divine right and eradicating entire tribes in the process.
“There are moments when I am alone working in the field and I sense a presence of something much larger than myself. […] At these moments, it is very clear to me why particular places are deemed sacred.”
As a white male with Irish/German ancestry, I also realize that I am complicit in the notion of Western expansion. However, I grew up without any spiritual direction and have long been interested in Native views of the sanctity of the land. So, the inspiration for this project stems from my own spiritual curiosity, along with a desire to understand the ancestry of the American landscape. While visiting the sites in the Vanishing Points project, I’m also reflecting on the monuments our modern culture will leave behind and what the archaeological evidence of our civilization will reveal about our time on Earth.
Recent controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline project on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, and subsequent protests, has brought new attention to issues regarding the treatment of sacred Native land and its people. The Vanishing Points project participates in this important conversation, providing a reflection and critique on the historical impacts of Manifest Destiny and the continued subjugation of Native American tribes, while also connecting a mysterious and ancient past with the familiar present.
All the landscapes you photographed have a very special story, from their native past to their re-appropriation by modern society. Which site history has particularly marked you?
That is a difficult question to answer, because so many of these sites resonate with me in different, but equally powerful ways. The majority of the sites I’ve visited in the eastern portion of the United States have visible evidence of modern life. Miamisburg Mound and the Grave Creek Mound, two of the largest conical burial mounds in eastern North America, are visually arresting marks on the landscape. They are ancient and mysterious, sacred to numerous tribes, and there is an energetic presence to them that is palpable. Yet, they are surrounded by chain link fences, penitentiaries and the artifacts of our busy daily lives.
In the American West, actual geological landforms replace burial mounds as spiritual points of interest. Many of these sites are protected and very little has changed in literally thousands of years. Matò Pahà, otherwise known as Bear Butte, in South Dakota and Devils Tower in Wyoming are two sites I’ve visited that were completely mesmerizing. There are moments when I am alone working in the field and I sense a presence of something much larger than myself; something intangible and ultimately indescribable. At these moments, it is very clear to me why particular places are deemed sacred. Of course, my greatest challenge with the project is making photographs that embody some of these experiences.
You shot with a large format camera, what did it bring to your project?
It’s a long, methodical process to take a single a picture with a large format camera (not to mention the cost of shooting and processing one picture can run you $10 a piece!). But, it’s precisely because of these reasons that I use a large format camera. It puts me in tune with the present moment. I feel like I connect with my subject on a more intimate level than I would shooting digitally. I might only take one or two pictures at a single site, but I’m fully invested in those images and they feel special for that very reason. I enjoy the relative unpredictability of film as well. There is a great anticipation and craft when shooting film that I still enjoy. For archival reasons, I also like the tangible aspect of film. Perhaps I am a traditionalist, but the lack of tactility in the digital era makes me anxious.
Since the beginning of the project in 2011, how did it evolve & what are your achievements and goals?
After my initial photograph, I began researching historical archives, maps and contemporary satellite imagery, as well as meeting with archaeologists, historians and scholars. I was able to locate and photograph numerous sites of indigenous American presence throughout the Ohio River Valley region, including sacred landforms, earthworks, documented archaeological sites and contested battlegrounds. This area was essentially the epicenter of the Native American world nearly 2,000 years ago, and also happens to be my birthplace.
As research for the project evolved, I found myself reading more and more about sites in the Central and Western portions of the United States. I was able to secure some funding to visit these areas and the project expanded geographically. I’m not sure what the end point is for a project of this kind, but every time I feel like I’ve come to a place of contentment I read something, or I learn about some place that inspires me to keep exploring further.
I have had several solo and group exhibitions of the Vanishing Points project and continue to pursue larger venues for the work, especially as the series grows. Ultimately, I would like to create a book and have already begun brainstorming the initial designs and production.
Enjoy the full project on his website.