“We built Disneyland, you didn’t.” —Jeffrey Silverthorne
In Philippe Soupault’s Surrealist classic Last Nights of Paris, the character’s main protagonist and flaneur of nocturnal Paris promotes his obsession with the book’s female lead Georgette in a passage about her transcendent ephemeral passing as such…
“…Georgette was seductive only because her appearance was obviously deceptive. Behind the everyday veil, under her make-up, one could discern her real flesh and could, so to speak, breathe her proper perfume, her very essence. But what gave her person a charm that could be described as special was her resemblance to a shadow.”
Soupault’s reduction of Georgette as “her resemblance to a shadow”, loosely frames my attempt to make analogous and to define the newest body of work by Jeffrey Silverthorne. And as analogy to the French literary tradition, the aim is the lyrical dissemination of an ephemeral notion of slippage and loss that consumes the latter half of America’s 20th century and early 21st century’s dilemma of decline. Presently, the veil of an opulent dream is torn asunder by the beast of economy and the country’s complicit desire to deny the importance of the psychological ramifications of photography and the subsequent paving over of every brick left to build every house in the disillusioned and flailing ideology of the “American Dream”.
Jeffrey Silverthorne’s new body of work A Diary of Lost Originals is receiving some well-deserved recognition, which was not determined previously and still does not exist with heavy measure in the United States. Note that it is Musee Niepce, not a museum in the US that is giving Jeffrey his first retrospective with museum operator Francois Cheval rightly declaring that Jeffrey’s work had been an important part of the history of French photography and within the photographic world over the past decade. It is this function of Silverthorne’s place in the larger peripheries of photography that has bolstered his new precedent within the European scene. Europeans have a perhaps stereotypically nonchalant approach to matters of sex, death, and those violent displays, which are subsequently rendered virile in the face of so much American loss. It is possibly a stereotypically American surrender to the pan-psychological nuances from the 60s onward.
Silverthorne, a prophet of awareness, contends that his work is not focused on the above qualities of life and death exclusively, but rather passes as commentator on the turbulence he sees daily within the diffused membrane of the dream. These are the images of the unravelling, the unconscious, and the uncollected totems of real lives falling through widening cracks in the splitting pavement. A slough of recesses under which new light must shine through to document the underexposed relics of the promise given in the land of the free.
Starting in the 1960s under the heavy-weight tutelage of Harry Callahan and Rhode Island School of Design, Silverthorne’s trajectory has included the parallel loci of abjection and also beauty staged in predominantly theatrical tableaus. Known predominantly for his “morgue work” in the 1970’s, Silverthorne’s transgressive interests also embed themselves in The Missing and also the hinterland series of transvestite prostitutes in Boystown, which open up the chasm of divinity, death, and the (un) observed within the canon of photography. Though citing references such as Giotto, Kertesz, and Goya, I find the master’s brush more suited to Brueghel or perhaps Bosch. In every facet of Silverthorne’s work, there lies an utterance about the frailty of human life, emotion, and in particular, a desire to cope within the post-consumer world and decline of America’s greater majority.
In reflecting on the manner of loss and slippage in the new work via the coupling of negative and doubling of exposure (both pursuits are used) Silverthorne remarks that…
“I think that there is an American read to these. There is a directness to many of the images, both as I buy them and as I use them. There is a subtlety to them as well, which comes about with general cultural associations of the viewer, and having the resulting combination photograph upset those general associations. There is less stability of psychology to these and that mirrors the lack of community stability, and the various technologies, which we take for granted as means of communication. We are, almost, nowhere because we are so many other places than where we physically are. This being nowhere is in no way related to deep spiritual experiences. I think that many of my images are motivated by loss, emptiness, and the desire to make a presentation to somehow shake the world and say, "I too am alive." How deeply one wants to be alive is what one does in, with, their life.”
And on the combinative process of exposures and slippage…“This ‘slippage’ is actually a gain of traction that deepens each of the situations that formed the original negatives and the new one that is coming out in the picture I make. The accepted ‘normal’ use of time in a photograph only is paid attention to over many years if it does step out of the moment, transcend the moment, and reveal/mirror on-going curiosities/concerns. So the whole sense of linear time really falls apart, never existed, as an image worms its way into the imagination…actually the image already is in the imagination and the photographer simply reveals it. The images that are highly designed and constructed seldom last. As for the ‘pure aesthetics of the images blending(ed) together’, I understand, but that is no longer of interest to me. That is similar to making a photograph that looks like a photograph and calling it good. If there is not a social hit, if the image does not eat at my heart, then it's just decoration and that for me is worthless.”
The slippage involved in using several images, shot in different times becomes a sort of mantra, a knowing disposition that suggests the maker is aware of these concerns of time versus time. They are somehow wrought with imbalance in one photographic image. Slicing, editing, and marauding through the vast dystopia of American female cheesecake kitsch and that of images from early male adolescent dreams of female cheesecake, the images compacted together offer a vertiginous look at the American psyche and also that of Silverthorne. The works are somehow loosely autobiographical. (The viewer is never certain if these works are autobiographical, again adding to “slippage” of biography). During Silverthorne’s lifetime, the photographer has seen an age explained by the meanderings of rockets, of wars, of presidential men. Sandwiched between are the realms of corporal fascination with (concepts associated with) the female body, the age of progress, but also that of maternal and societal loss and a feel that the local newspaper boy has stolen somebody’s Playboy subscription only to run down to the train yard to show his friends the real secrets of what lies beneath everything directly before backing, sliding, slipping onto the tracks of an oncoming train.
The relativism of the situation and the images themselves bear a certain Stand by Me bittersweet and forced naivety, which is also faced with the colossal wall of death, which pursues many of our libidinal moments. Fascination is found leading way unto a certain cognitive blindness that gets lost in the ointment of times criss-crossing into a new morphology of mistrust of society, death, and perhaps the paternal pre-determined ignorance of the “feminine mystique”. This sentiment is not altogether different from chasing a prostitute. On this Silverthorne suggests that “the prostitute in my work is that undeserved satisfaction that exceeds expectation” under the black cloak of a Parisian night, leaving her resemblance to that of a shadow. The shadow, a metaphor for the spaces, which occur between the moments that Silverthorne has spliced together like a genetic manipulator of fevered dreams and moments never served, but moments created rather with aplomb. These Liminal spaces are doubled and put into one image that portends to contradict and also enable our understanding of American culture, the jetpacks we were promised, and the harsh reality of what we as Americans are about to be served in a major shift away from the might of our crumbling manifest destiny.
The process of which gives way to fissure. These images measure a cracking puff of ash and debris radiating up between the cracks in the sidewalk at our feet. Stumbling from a run into a free-fall. The images though eroticized, bear comment to the uncanny and the fumbling receptor of the beast of dreams.
Silverthorne’s (A Diary of Lost Originals) is sort of a Lewis Mumford dispassionately setting about to make the new city or social landscape from our collective psyche rather than an absolute record of it. It is a memoir of the lucid, personal, and a diaristic attitude to the tradition of the body and also the perception of hinterlands within the frame. It encapsulates, and its inability to shed the membrane that holds several components together firms our suspicions as player in the law of psychological averages and former societal displacement within the creaking passage of the false collectivisation of the American Dream. Here within the moment, we are amidst the unending scaffolding of Disneyland’s slowly materialising record of fissure and decay.-(Text by Brad Feuerhelm)
©All pictures Jeffrey Silverthorne,
Courtesy: VU’ galerie, Paris