In the introductory essay to Vanishing Points by photographer Michael Sherwin, author Josh Garrett-Davis muses on the concept of longue durée — a phrase that frames an approach to history writing which focuses on events that occur in long-form. These events cannot be identified in any single moment, moving with almost imperceptible slowness, but they are nonetheless an unfolding of a changing relationship between people and the world. As Garrett-Davis notes, this idea would seem to be deeply at odds with the medium of photography, which generally and by nature seeks to capture a fixed moment rather than an extended movement.
And yet, as the work in Vanishing Points reveals, photography and the slow creep of history can become unsteady bedfellows, as long as the artist knows what to photograph. Michael Sherwin engaged in an exhaustive period of excavation for this work, visiting sites of historic and ritual importance to the indigenous occupants of North America. From there, the book finds him juxtaposing vast, sweeping landscapes with studio-staged details of bits of detritus found on these sites — a crushed soda can, a fragment of animal bone, an abandoned child’s toy — treating them with the same kind of anthropological reverence usually reserved for trash from thousands of years ago.
In Sherwin’s work, the tradition of landscape photography collides with notions of the US road trip narrative. There are people who take to the road to see the country by way of its current inhabitants, and people who do so by avoiding the living and seeking the spaces that still hold a sense of emptiness that suggests what once was. It would have taken a prescient member of the Meškwahki.aša.hina (Fox) tribe, the original occupants of the place where my house sits today, to see the view as I see it out my window. But there are places in the woods, or the sweeping vistas of the Southwest, where I can imagine I am looking at a panorama just as it appeared to someone who lived there 1,000 years ago. Tree time dwarfs us humans, and geologic time makes motes of us all.
Sherwin has a canny eye for these glimpses between the lines of history, at turns reverent and humorous. A sweeping playa punctuated by jutting mesa, then a wrought iron bench in front of a mural of Native American villagers building huts, then an empty pint of sour apple liquor under the brand Johnny Bootlegger, then a small hill — maybe a midden mound? — then a dead goose fallen by a curb at water’s edge, a dead fox on a rural roadway, a little bit of charcoal. A tiny spray of wild orchids. A parking lot. The poetics of Sherwin’s cultural study unfold slowly and powerfully, until everything gels into a tapestry of collective meaning. This, I suspect, is longue durée, and the investment made by Sherwin in assembling this evidence is not only singular and powerful, but an invitation and reminder that any one of us is part of that slow movement through history and possesses the potential to frame it, and in doing so, change it.
Vanishing Points by Michael Sherwin is published by Kehrer Verlag and is available on Bookshop.