Interview: Michael Sherwin

Mural, Point Pleasant Riverfront Park, Point Pleasant, WV © Michael Sherwin

Today we interview Michael Sherwin about his project Vanishing Points which, according to his statement, comes from a desire to "explore the ancestry of the American landscape, and reflect upon traditional Western Anglo American views of nature, wilderness, ownership and spirituality."

Using the mediums of photography, video and installation, Sherwin's art reflects on the experience of observing nature through the lenses of science, popular culture and history. He has won numerous grants and awards for his work, and has been exhibited widely, including recent shows at CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, New York, SPACES Gallery in Cleveland, Ohio, the Clay Center for Arts and Sciences in Charleston, WV, and the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center in Atlanta, GA. Reviews and reproductions of his work have been featured in Art Papers, Oxford American, Don't Take Pictures and Aint-Bad, among others. He has been invited to present his work at universities and conferences across the nation, including the 2011 Society for Photographic Education National Conference in Atlanta, GA. Sherwin earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Oregon in 2004, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Ohio State University in 1999. Currently, Michael Sherwin is an Associate Professor of Photography and Intermedia in the School of Art and Design at West Virginia University. He is also the founder and lead instructor for WVU's Jackson Hole Photography Workshop and an active and participating member of the Society for Photographic Education.

Previous interviews with Sherwin can be found on Walk Your Camera and the Humble Arts Foundation.

Suncrest Towne Center, Morgantown, WV © Michael Sherwin

fototazo: Give us a little background on Vanishing Points. It started when the Suncrest Towne Center in Morgantown, West Virginia was built over a sacred indigenous burial ground and village site close to your house?

Michael Sherwin: Yes. When I arrived in Morgantown in 2007 there were protests going on at a busy intersection very close to my house. Being new to the area, I had no idea what all the commotion was about. Months later I realized that people were protesting the new Suncrest Towne Center development, which was being built on a sacred burial and village site of the native Monongahela tribe. Initially, Wal-Mart held the lease for the land and in the process of excavation had unearthed artifacts and skeletal remains dating from 200 to 2,000 years old. Wal-Mart already had a nasty reputation of desecrating native sites and in order to avoid public scrutiny they backed out of the lease and a local developer stepped in.

In a relatively short period of time, the Suncrest Towne Center grew into a bustling shopping center complete with all the usual, and recognizable, storefronts and signage. It was anywhere America, yet at the same time it held on to a mysterious and spiritually significant past. This duality fascinated me. I decided to make a photograph of the site without any knowledge or expectations that it would lead to a much larger project. At the same time, I became interested in learning more about Native history in the area and began contacting historians, archaeologists and scholars. I discovered numerous sites throughout the state of West Virginia and neighboring region and the project has just unfolded from there.

Mattress, Natrium Plant, New Martinsville, OH © Michael Sherwin

f: In the past, you've worked in video and on Internet-based work, but with this project you've turned to straight photography. What does straight work allow you to bring to this project that made you elect to work this way?

MS: I'm shooting with a large format 4x5 inch view camera for the Vanishing Points project. I'm scanning my own negatives at a high resolution and printing large custom inkjet prints. This was a big transition in my work, which often consists of appropriated web-based imagery, video or even installation. At the same time it felt very natural. I've always had an affinity for large format photography and it just felt like the right tool for this project. I might be at risk of sounding a little cliché, but for me there's still something special about shooting film and using a traditional camera. The long, methodical process of making a picture with a large format camera puts me more 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. I am also enjoying the unpredictable nature of long exposures and the anticipation of processing the negatives. I've sort of rekindled my interest in the traditional craft of photography.

I am also aware that in shooting straight, large format landscape photography, I'm following a long tradition in the medium from the earliest survey photographs to the New Topographics and beyond. Many of the artists associated with these movements have been big inspirations behind my work and process. While I may be adopting some of the same techniques and tools of earlier generations, I hope that my project adds a new conceptual layer to the genre of landscape photography.

Conus Mound, Mound Cemetery, Marietta, OH © Michael Sherwin

f: I'd like to ask you a little about the relationship between the aesthetic decisions you make and the themes that you work with. The project title is Vanishing Points and you say in your statement that, "The sites I choose to visit and photograph are literal and metaphorical vanishing points. They are places in the landscape where two lines, or cultures, converge."

The frontal, symmetrical style with one, central vanishing point in the middle of the photograph is a direct reference to the title and the idea of the convergence of two cultures?

MS: I don't think I was specifically looking for obvious vanishing points while working in the field. Believe it or not it just kind of happened intuitively. I began to take notice of the literal vanishing points in the photography after the fact and made the same kind of connections you did.

Sunrise, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Chillicothee, OH © Michael Sherwin

f: A lot of frontal and symmetrical work is very cool in its sensibility and solicits adjectives like "forensic" and "clinical." Yours, on the other hand, works with almost Romantic light, a sunset palette of warm purples and pinks. The project, however, was spawned by a mall built over a sacred site and is, according to your statement, a "reflection upon traditional Western Anglo American views of nature, wilderness, ownership and spirituality" that I would say is somewhat critical of those views, although I'll ask you more about that in a moment.

To me, then, there's this Romantic impulse that's not pushed to the point of the sublime, terror and awe of, say Thomas Cole or J.M.W. Turner, which you use to illuminate this heavy historical and social critique. Would you agree? How do light, time of day and the pleasing, harmonious color palette work in relationship to your critical stance?

MS: I'm trained as an artist and not a journalist. Sometimes there's not much difference between the two, but in my case I do have a certain aesthetic that drives the formal aspects of the work. I want the pictures to be seductive in their clarity and tonality. I often photograph very early in the morning or late in the day when the light is warmer and more dramatic. I place a big emphasis on craft as well. Every little detail is attended to in these photographs. Many of the images are quite beautiful and romantic as you say. I feel like this is the best way to initially engage the viewer, to pull them in and then slowly open the conversation up. The photographs often depict the most ordinary kinds of landscapes, or in some cases those landscapes are the site of a horrible tragedy. I like when there's a duality in the pictures, a sort of push and pull for the viewer.

Shrum Mound, Columbus, OH © Michael Sherwin

f: You place the focus almost squarely on the contextual spatial container of the landscape, largely avoiding details, interiors and leaving figures at a remote distance. Landscapes are frequently pushed back, with sweeping foregrounds. You talk a little bit about this with Roger May in your interview with him, but beyond lenses and a comfort in working with the landscape, I feel like maybe there's something more there. Maybe reverence, maybe disquiet in the stillness and awkwardness created in the vision that encompasses both sacred spaces and strip malls. How do you think working strictly in this distanced space and almost always in front of landscape impacts the tone of your ideas and the impressions the work creates?

MS: I enjoy working within a system, or a formula, and allowing repetition, pattern and process to become a part of the conceptual aspect of the work. Much of my earlier work has been influenced by scientific methods and controlled observation. When I first began this project I was almost always at a distance, stepping back and including as much of the landscape as possible. I've always been drawn to work that is more objective and neutral in terms of intent, so this distanced and analytical approach seemed natural to me. I think this style does create a cooler, even quieter, tone to the work.

As the project has evolved, I've found myself wanting to expand the language of the work. I've been shooting more details recently and a few interiors as well. I like the way these images add a bit more mystery or complexity to the subject matter and reading of the photographs.

Big Bottom Massacre State Memorial, Morgan County, OH © Michael Sherwin

f: A generic question: what makes a good landscape?

MS: I'm not sure I'm in a position to determine what is, or is not, a good landscape, but there are certain characteristics of landscape photographs that I prefer. In my opinion, a landscape is not just pristine nature, but it's also where nature meets culture. A landscape is just as much about the land as it is about human civilization and its interaction with the land. I typically place this human element at a distance in a landscape to emphasize the land first and our place within that scene. This is a fairly traditional definition of a good landscape. Ultimately, I think it's up to the artist and how they express their connection, or view, of the land.

Nature Trail, Flint Ridge State Memorial, Licking County, OH © Michael Sherwin

Sand Pile, Little Miami Golf Center, Newtown, OH © Michael Sherwin

f: I've tipped my hand about how I view the work already, but to elaborate, when I look at images like the sand pile in the parking lot and draw the contrast with the burial mounds, or look at the image of the blank screen in the Sunwatch Village interpretive center, or the "Nature Trail" sign, it makes me feel that the work goes beyond a reflection or meditation on these spaces and it begins to feel not only critical, but perhaps even political. Do you have any agenda with this work along political lines? How critical do you believe your work is about the Western Anglo views of nature, ownership and spirituality?

MS: I see the work as all those things, meditative, reflective, and definitely a little critical. The more I've gotten into this project and the more research I've done, I've grown more disgusted with our handling of Native sites and cultures. These feelings have probably manifested themselves in recent images more than in earlier work. There are some images that are more blatantly ironic than others and some that are hopefully even a little humorous. At the same time, there were places that really struck a chord with me on a deeper, spiritual level and I tried to translate those feelings in the photograph.

Film, Sun Watch Village Interpretive Center, Dayton, OH © Michael Sherwin

f: I think that there are conventional and perhaps somewhat one-dimensional narratives that we repeat about the relationship of native communities to the land, Anglo-Native history, Manifest Destiny and development, all themes that your work encompasses. These narrative lines generally boil down into something like native communities are "good," in-tune with nature and spiritually enlightened and have been largely destroyed by Anglo communities that are "bad," destructive, money-hungry and spiritually bankrupt. History is almost never so simple and this would seem to offer opportunities to give texture, dimension, emphasis and perhaps to update. How have you worked in relation to some of traditional narratives of our cultural history with this work?

MS: I think I went into this project with the relatively generic analogy you mentioned between Native and Anglo. However, the more research I did the more I realized that Native cultures were not perfect citizens and stewards of the land. There was plenty of destruction of the landscape and constant war amongst tribes. However, the one thing that was consistent is that all Native cultures believed the land was sacred and had a very deep, spiritual connection to place. There was a common understanding that the Earth was to be protected and revered and that any resources taken from the Earth (game, water, trees, etc.) were precious gifts to be celebrated and appreciated.

Our treatment of Native peoples over the past three to four centuries is nothing short of genocide. It's a part of our nation's past that is hardly ever talked about. Certainly, there were atrocities on both sides, but almost universally provoked by Western ignorance and disrespect. Either way, you never hear the Native side of the story in high school history class. It's a complex and dirty history that has never been fully told in favor of preserving our national image. Even today, I feel like much of what happens, or at least what we are fed, is only surface deep. The political motivations behind our country's government and operations are often much more slimy than what we're told. As much as this project is sort of a visual archaeology, I suppose it's also an opportunity to shed some light on the treatment of Native cultures throughout history and our irreverence for their views on the sanctity of land and place.

Stump, Great Miami River, Hamilton, OH © Michael Sherwin

f: You write in your statement, "While visiting these sites, I reflect on the monuments our modern culture will leave behind and what the archaeological evidence of our modern civilization reveals about our time on Earth." Have these reflections brought you to any conclusions?

MS: It's interesting to me to think about what our culture will leave behind, and how it might be translated by future civilizations (assuming there will be any). Much of what we know about previous cultures and inhabitants of Earth is derived from the artifacts and monuments we've unearthed: dwellings, shards of cookware, pottery, tools, etc. In addition, many of our findings are spiritual, or ritualistic in nature: mounds, ceremonial beads, ornamental headdresses, elaborate earthworks, carvings, etc. A cloud of mystery still shrouds any real knowledge of the ultimate purpose of these findings.

I wonder what our archaeological legacy might look like. Will future civilizations discover our industrial castles, our skyscrapers, massive pit mines, or the mountains of landfills? If so, how will these findings piece together the story of our existence and, for that matter, our eventual extinction? And, finally, are these conclusions any different than the story we've reconstructed of previous civilizations, or is it simply another layer in the epic strata of life and death?

Factory, Ohio River, Marshall County, WV © Michael Sherwin

f: Anything else you'd like to add, Michael?

MS: I think it's important to note that in addition to making the landscape photographs for the Vanishing Points project I've also been working on a separate body of work that documents found objects I collect from the various sites. In a series titled Artifacts I photography individual objects/debris found at the various sites in a clinical white setting. Isolated and removed from their original context, they become emblems and evidence of our contemporary culture – Matchbox cars, 6-Hour Power bottles, plastic flowers, etc. No matter how mundane, they all hold a certain mystery and a story, not unlike ancient artifacts in a museum vitrine.

Miamisburg Mound, Miamisburg, OH © Michael Sherwin