For more than forty years now Jeffrey Silverthorne has been working constantly on an oeuvre that has hung out on the fringes of American society. In the confrontational retrospective exhibition Travel Plans, which is accompanied by a book of the same title, the photographer candidly poses the great questions of life, about sex and death.
Long before Andres Serrano discovered the shock value of corpses, and long before Sally Mann recorded decomposition on 19th century ‘wet plates’, Jeffrey Silverthorne walked in 1972 into a morgue with his camera. He recorded the recently deceased in black and white: a sensual woman who died in her sleep, seriously frowning babies, a little boy who had been hit by a car. These are photographs from which you want to avert your eyes, but you cannot force yourself to do so. The longer you look, the more profound the images are. After the initial shock and revulsion, they provoke questions about specific circumstances – often partially answered in the title – and the arbitrariness of fate. And with that: compassion.
These probing and disturbing photographs buttressed Silverthorne’s reputation. In the years that followed he broadened his palette, deepened his fascinations and developed into a master of photographic technique. He created gloomy fantasy worlds populated by dolls, and staged equivocal nudes. He continued to be partial to extreme subjects. He could be found in brothels, in the company of transvestites and transsexuals, in the world of dwarf wrestlers and body builders.
One could call him a child of Diane Arbus, but where in her case one senses a certain voyeurism, Silverthorne has succeeded in making himself increasingly vulnerable and visible through his work. ‘I make images to remember,’ he once said, ‘not so much that which I am recording, but my own feelings and reactions.’
Photographs from Silverthorne’s whole career have been assembled in the Noorderlicht exhibition Travel Plans, which is accompanied by a book of the same title. A superficial look suggests that it is very diverse work, but thematically they all reflect on the question that is at the heart of Silverthorne’s work: ‘What does life mean in the face of the knowledge that you will die?’ With time and experience, this question takes on a different weight and significance for a person. While you are growing up, your realisation of death and life grows with you. The best photographs, in Silverthorne’s opinion, connect with that. They become more adult and profound as the viewer does.
It is Silverthorne’s themes and obsessions that forge Travel Plans into an ineluctable whole and describe a compelling line through his forty-year career as an artist. Photo after photo Silverthorne takes us by the hand, leading us past the beauty and the grand guignol of a life in the shadow of mortality.
Book and exhibition in association with Galerie VU', representing Jeffery Silverthorne.