When photographer Michael Sherwin contacted me to show me his book “Vanishing Points,” (Kehrer Verlag, 2021) I went into my usual mode of taking a look at the photographs before even glancing at the words. The first impression I had was that his project was a collection of gorgeous large-format landscapes of U.S. geography. Then I got to wondering about the title: Why was it called “Vanishing Points”? It brought back memories of high school art class and lessons about perspective, crammed somewhere in the back of my brain.
Well, it turns out Sherwin’s title is double-edged, at least. It does refer to the visual phenomenon of vanishing points. Let’s take a quick look at a dictionary to suss that out. According to Merriam-Webster, the term refers to “a point at which receding parallel lines seem to meet when represented in linear perspective.” Yes, that’s what I remember from all those years ago in art class. But Webster’s also gives us another definition, “a point at which something disappears or ceases to exist.” Sure enough, Sherwin’s photographs are referencing both of these things.
Sherwin’s book takes us on a lush, often verdant, journey of rolling hills, open plains and leafy forests. That’s the surface — that’s what we see at first. But there’s something else going on underneath all that beauty. Punctuated throughout what are mostly landscapes, there are glimpses of detritus left behind — a rusted aerosol can, a forgotten toy. “Vanishing Points” is much more than these gorgeous landscapes, or even the detritus. Sherwin tells us as much in the opening pages of the book:
“In ‘Vanishing Points,’ I locate and photograph significant sites of indigenous American presence, including ancient earthworks, sacred landforms, documented archaeological sites, and contested battlegrounds. They are places in the landscape where two lines, or cultures, converge. While visiting these sites, I reflect on the monuments our modern culture will presumably leave behind and what the archaeological evidence of our civilization will reveal about our time on earth.”
Things are so often more than meets our eyes. A wide-open plain is both a beautiful landscape and a place where, say, buffalo once roamed. The white-lined asphalts of the ever-ubiquitous parking lots dotting the country may replace what once was someone’s house, or a long-gone business. Change is one of the things we can always be certain of. Sherwin’s photographs serve as potent reminders of that. Beneath their splendor lie stories, monuments, that have vanished, yet are still there.
I’d like to leave you with the words of Kirsten Rian, who is a writer, photography curator, visual artist and professor. In an introduction to “Vanishing Points,” she writes:
“Push a shovel into the soil anywhere in the United States and there’s a story to tell. One you probably don’t know, were never taught in any history class, will probably die not knowing. But know it’s there. Like life and death. Grief and loss. Sherwin’s images aren’t necessarily meant to be beautiful, though many of them are. Light still pours from the sky and spills across grasslands and hills, no matter what battles trampled that very plot of earth centuries earlier. Clouds move along a horizon, trees anchor the sight-line. Truth and lies. Light and dark. All at once.”
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