Each month an exclusive edition run of a photograph by an artist featured in Don't Take Pictures magazine is made available for sale. Each image is printed by the artist, signed, numbered, and priced below $200.
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We are pleased to release February's print, Cleared Meadow, Greenbottom Wildlife Management Area, WV, 2011 from Michael Sherwin. Read more about Sherwin's work below.
Purchase this print and from our print sale page.
Invisible Histories: Michael Sherwin's Vanishing Points
What is dying is not dead, what is vanishing has not yet disappeared. Michael Sherwin’s Vanishing Points series challenges the limits of history by exploring the duality of place and presence. His work is an archaeological dig where, without breaking ground, he explores the history of a place. Sherwin’s work illustrates the profound and indelible marks left by a defeated people on the places they once inhabited so that by showing the now, he reveals what once was. The series, 25 photographs of places where Native American history and American expansion have collided, reveals the importance of history even while stripping a location of its native physical identity. Sherwin shows that it is not the physical manifestation of a site that matters; instead, it is the history that matters, leaving an impression felt by any who bear witness.
Go to Gettysburg and stand between the twenty-foot boulders at the Devil’s Den. Allow your senses to adjust for a second and listen to the breeze rushing between the prehistoric citadel of rock formations. Feel the place, where 2,600 men hacked and shot one another to death in a matter of some 12 hours. There are no bodies left to view, no rifles or canteens strewn about in the chaos of conflict, but you will feel the presence of that place’s history. It presses in on you. Michael Sherwin wants you to feel it in native histories.
For example, Sherwin depicts the lingering presence of the Monongahela tribe in an unlikely place: the Suncrest Town Center, a development on the tribe’s historic land. Suncrest Town Center is a typical development, including a Buffalo Wild Wings and Jos A. Bank. Car exhaust lifts over the hum of vehicles on a monolithic concrete parking lot. Some 2,000 years ago the Monongahela people lived, played, held religious ceremonies, and buried their brothers, sisters and children here, a holy site now paved over. It is a major business development complex, essentially a shopping mall, in Morgantown, WV. The land was donated to West Virginia University by a wealthy Morgantown resident for use as an archaeological site. At one point Wal-Mart vetted the property; however, after the Army Corps of Engineers discovered the remains of at least seven gravesites as well as evidence of broad ethnographic significance, Wal-Mart stepped aside. West Virginia University instead sold the 9.2-acre property to a development firm for 1.55 million. The land was lost to “progress,” and to make a tragedy even worse, the remains of the Monongahela tribal members were exhumed and sent to current members of the Seneca tribe in New York. The Seneca’s were a traditional enemy of the Monongahela, and some historians believe they may have even been responsible for the tribe’s demise.
In Sherwin’s photograph “Suncrest Town Center, Morgantown, WV,” the viewer is carried over a wildflower and grass-covered ridge, creeping from the bottom left upward and to the right of the image. Like Odysseus returning from his exhausting journey ready to hang his shield and rest, but finding his world entirely changed, the viewer peers over the ridge and into a parking lot, a moated bastion of consumerism. Light trails zip between neat rows of cars whose owners feverishly shop at Kroger for groceries or Cowboys and Angels, for Western boots, accessories, and apparel. They are careless—maybe even defiant—of the history below the linoleum mall tiling and their vibram shoe soles. The end of a people, an eradicated civilization whose monument of repose, a 2,000 year-old burial site, is replaced by the monumental trophy of victory and expansion that is the Suncrest Town Center.
Still, the Monongahela remain. Their history is stronger than pavement and steel, and Sherwin intends us to see it despite ourselves. The grassy ridge pulls the viewer into the image, its power begging the viewer to see something hidden, something unequivocally present. A history. A story. At the image’s literal vanishing point, there are rolling hills, and surrounding the parking lot, grasslands infiltrate the new construction.
The escalating ridge in Sherwin’s photograph is an incantation, an ancient chant, a war drum. It is like the American abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman’s perfect brushstroke: the negative space it creates allows us to see the positive. The ridge, like Newman’s monastic compositions, creates for the viewer a stoic god of color amidst a world of chaos and movement. The ridge is an existential reminder that we are all monuments fading into earth. Only our history remains when we are the defeated people.
Michael Sherwin’s Vanishing Points series illustrates that there may, in fact, be no vanishing point. An army may kill a people, historians may attempt to revise or change a people’s narrative. Contractors and developers may destroy physical evidence of a people’s existence and cover it with their own objects of importance. But the ineradicable essence of those former inhabitants will always remain. A place remembers even when it seems to forget. The new face of the Suncrest Town Center does little to erase the history of the place itself. Simply because we cannot name it does not mean it is not there, or that we cannot feel it. As at any vanishing point, the lingering weight of history refuses to be lifted, and it hangs over that place like a shroud. History does not favor the righteous or the wicked. When our civilization erodes or is conquered, only our history shields us from oblivion. The monuments we build will be torn down, our homes razed and built over. Our graveyards will be paved or plowed under. But what will always remain will be our history and its sometimes invisible, yet pressing, presence. Sherwin reminds us that our places have memories, ones that can be seen even as they vanish.
This article first appeared in Issue 3.
Joe Brennan is an artist/collector working at Sotheby’s as a Union Property Handler. He lives with his wife, baby girl, and chihuahua in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.