Last Friday, I took the day off.
Normally, I tell you ahead of time, (and plan a proper get-away,) to help rejuvenate my creativity.
It’s a solid trick, and normally works well, but this time was different.
Rather than taking an actual vacation, I used the week-off to deal with some serious life stress.
Just like a mental-health-day isn’t really a “day off,” last week was about crisis management, and I guess the crises were averted.
But I can’t exactly say I feel refreshed.
(C’est la vie.)
I’m not mentioning this to complain.
(Though I know it might look like that.)
Rather, at the end of June, I gave a webinar for the Los Angeles Center of Photography, which was all about sharing strategies to maintain and support our creativity, over the long-term.
I’ve been a working artist for 25 years, so I created a list of 25 ideas that enable our creativity to flourish.
Much of the teaching would be familiar to you, (if you’ve been reading the column for years,) but of course some of it was new.
Somewhere in the middle of the lecture, I discussed the fact that outside forces in our lives, be they relational or geo-political, can have a massive impact on our creativity. (In addition to our happiness.)
Perpetual stress is hard on the body, and while creative practice is a brilliant form of self-care, sometimes it can get overwhelmed, and then diminished.
So today, feeling really bad, deep in my heart, I wondered how I was going to force myself to write the column, when all I wanted to do was put on my headphones and pretend the outside world doesn’t exist?
Denial doesn’t work, though, so I unboxed a book, read/looked at it, and went for a short walk to prep my thoughts. (As I often do.)
Don’t worry, I’m giving you all this context for a reason.
The truth is, I want you to decide for yourself whether the rest of this column, (the actual book review part,) is being colored by a bad mood, or whether I’m able to separate my emotions from my thoughts, on an admittedly difficult day.
Let’s get to it.
“Vanishing Points,” by Michael Sherwin, published by Kehrer Verlag in Germany, showed up in the mail a year ago.
This is one I remember requesting, and I even recalled a bit about its concept, which seemed promising.
So I wasn’t flying blind.
I was excited to receive it, because the book directly challenged the current status quo, with respect to theories about staying in one’s lane.
Near as I can tell, it’s a book by a White, male American, that attempts to tell stories, and gather information, about historical, Indigenous/ Native American sacred sites across the United States.
“Vanishing Points” is the exact book we’ve been hearing, for several years now, should not be made.
It’s the opposite of a project made by an inside member of a culture, and as I believe we should be allowed our creative freedom, I was hoping the book would be awesome, enlightening, fascinating.
(Alas, I’m not loving it, though I really hoped I would.)
Is it because I’m in a bad mood?
I really don’t think so.
“Vanishing Points” begins with a typical writerly essay, and then we get a statement by the artist, providing the backstory.
As I understand it, Michael Sherwin believes Indigenous philosophies might hold the key to a healthier relationship with nature, in a Climate Change era, and of course we’ve heard such things a million times before.
(I am not immune, living as I do in the midst of a historical Indigenous community in Taos, NM. Many gringos have been similarly seduced, through the centuries. And a more holistic relationship with the Earth would absolutely be a good thing.)
Again, I actually believe the roots of Michael Sherwin’s investigation are valid, and should be on-limits, so my problem lies with the execution.
The book is a jumble of actual landscapes, cultural landscapes, obvious tropes, and trash artifacts removed from sacred sites, then photographed in a studio environment.
While there are captions at the end, to give us the specifics, it reads too much like a typical-photo-book template, (replete with a final, academic essay telling us what we just saw,) and the solid, but expected quality of the story-telling, and image-making, left me wanting.
The photographs of earthen-mound-architecture were the stand-outs, and given how little most people know about the grassy structures, (which are so different from Mexico’s pyramids,) I think there could have been a much stronger project, had the artist done a deep-dive there.
With a dearth of general-cultural-knowledge about ancient, large-scale settlements like Cahokia, I believe this could have been something special, as a book.
But just as a Lenni Lenape warrior in 1700, in what is now New Jersey, could not have imagined Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, linking so much of Native America together this way, through the experiences of a wandering, White photographer… I couldn’t make it work, as a critic.
And I wanted to.
I sat there, after putting the book down, and asked myself how to write the review?
How to honor the artist’s right to his vision, and applaud the effort that went into crafting it, while still finding fault with the results?
Being a critic can be hard sometimes.
But so can being an artist.
As always, we do the best we can, and take one day at a time.
See you next week.
If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review.