LISTEN: Photographer Describes Capturing “Vanishing Points” In Appalachia

May 4, 2015

Remnants of former prehistoric societies exist throughout Appalachia. One photographer is trying to capture glimpses of those ancient times in a series he has dubbed “Vanishing Points.”

Michael Sherwin is an associate professor of photography at West Virginia University. When he moved to Morgantown with his family several years ago there were protests happening around the development of what is now the Suncrest Town Center. West Virginia University sold an ancient indigenous burial site to developers. Sherwin entered the scene after a super-Kroger was built.

Wista 45 SP. “With this process, you shoot film. You never really know what you’re going to get,” Sherwin said. “I enjoy that anticipation.”
Credit Barend Jan de Jong

Sherwin says historical landscapes have always fascinated him. He shoots with a large format camera like the one Ansel Adams used. He says there’s a mystery to the process that he enjoys - a break from a world of immediate gratification. 

So he hauled his camera to an overlook of the growing shopping center on the edge of Morgantown, composed the shot, and then processed the negative.

It was the beginning of what has become a series Sherwin named “Vanishing Points.”

Suncrest Town Center, Morgantown, W.Va. “It was less than a mile from our house,” Sherwin said, “and I was shopping there. I was kind of torn by this kind of dual-identity of this landscape. And so one evening I decided I wanted to photograph it.”
Credit Michael Sherwin

Sherwin began to research what ancient remnants of lost civilizations in the region still exist, then seek them out to photograph them. Images in the resulting series usually incorporate some strangely banal detail of modern society that coexists with some former society’s faded mark on the landscape.

Road Ends, Green Bottom Wildlife Management Area, W.Va.
Credit Michael Sherwin

Then, some of Sherwin’s images show no obvious trace of former society at all.

Grave Creek View, Moundsville, W.Va.
Credit Michael Sherwin

Sherwin’s series includes some 60 images. He says it’s an ongoing project but that he’s at a point where putting a large show together would be possible. It’s something he hopes to achieve in coming years in this region. One of the benefits of shooting with large format camera is the incredible detail that is captured, he explains, so the actual prints would be really big (three or four feet tall).

Deer Blind, Bass Island Park, Newtown, OH
Credit Michael Sherwin

Zaleski Methodist Church Mound, Zaleski, OH
Credit Michael Sherwin

Factory, Ohio River, Marshall County, W.Va.
Credit Michael Sherwin

Mural, Point Pleasant Riverfront Park, W.Va.
Credit Michael Sherwin

His project was made possible in part with grants from the Colonel Eugene E. Myers Foundation, the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, the National Endowment for the Arts, and with approval from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts.