Part 1 – “I am speaking through hundreds of tongues”
6th September 2011
Live interview with Jeffrey Silverthorne at Daniel Blau London
During exhibition Haunting the Chapel – Photography and Dissolution
Introduction by Brad Feuerhelm, Gallery Director
Brad Feuerhelm: I’d like to introduce tonight a man who, for me personally, means a lot to have in the room. I came across Jeff’s work when I was investigating in my early days of photography and the image I ran into first was Woman who died in her sleep from The Morgue Series in 1972. For me it was quite immediate when I found this image, because you have arguably got some of the principal interests of surrealism, but I don’t think that was an intention, and the death of the image combined in one in such a powerful manifestation. The only time I have seen something that even hints at this image later on, was a work by a Mexican photographer named Enrique Metinides titled Adela Legeratta Rivas, struck by a Datsun, 1979. It depicts a beautiful blonde who has been hit by a car. Her body was flung towards a lamp post which her upper body ended up resting on and there is a man in the background in the process of covering her with a jacket.
©Jeffrey Silverthorne – Woman who died in her sleep, 1972
When I came across this uncomfortable beauty absorbed in death it was a game-changer for me personally and I started investigating photography. Not morgue photography per se, although there is history of that as well, but the image really stayed with me and I was lucky enough through the more recent years to strike up a correspondence with Jeff. We finally met a couple of years ago and it is hard to not get along with Jeff, he is such a likeable, lovely character. It was so interesting to meet him, because my preconceptions of who he might be and how he might act and behave were really up in the air – Jeff is probably the nicest guy I have met to this day. That is a bit reaching and wonderful, but I am very happy to have him here tonight for a conversational interview with Elin Henriksdotter, who runs a site called ContemporaryTalks.com, where she covers at length artists and does interviews quite nicely packaged. I definitely think you should all take a look at that.
What physically works for me with these images in the show is this idea of chemical dissolve in these unique prints. You can’t duplicate this chemical burn and it adds an overall feeling in particular which has a sort of double manifest of the idea of dissolve, whether it be of death or materially. What I would like to lead into, is if you (Jeffrey) can enlighten us a bit, quickly, about the process that you used to achieve the physical state of this print and with that initial question I will surrender to Elin.
©Jeffrey Silverthorne, currently on view at Daniel Blau London
Jeffrey Silverthorne: The process sets off with misjudgment or incorrect evaluation of how long the enlarging paper should be exposed, so if it is coming too quickly or not coming up, then I usually take it out of the developer, put it face down on some surface the darkroom could accommodate, like the floor, and I just let it stay there for a couple of months. In that sense, very similar to what Michael Grieve was discussing earlier, you don’t know what you are going to get. It has that element of chance.
So after you have developed the prints you throw them on the ground and the ambient light that travels through your darkroom effects the quality of the print and then you presumably redevelop the print a few months later?
It tends to be from two weeks to a month, or a month and a half.
Elin: I would like to talk about your Morgue Series. I remember reading a very strong comment from a woman, thanking you for the morgue series which had helped her to overcome the death of her husband, who was lost in the Vietnam War. And it is just such an amazing, important and life-changing experience that you led this woman towards. How did this happen?
This happened at a conference in California in a very pleasant environment with ideal California weather. I was walking back to the cabin where I was staying with a friend and this skinny little woman comes up and asks if I am Jeffrey Silverthorne. Usually when I am asked that question there is a problem that is about to come up, and I thought “Oh, shit. What have I done now? But then, I didn’t do it, whatever it was.” But I said “Yes” and she replied “I want to thank you for making the morgue pictures. I saw them at the San Francisco Art Institute and my husband had been reported missing in Vietnam. For many years I was always waiting for him to come back, but after I saw your pictures, I realized he wasn’t coming back. That helped me to bury him.”
How did you feel at that moment?
Well, I am not always that empathetic, so I thought “Oh, good. I didn’t do anything wrong.” I was happy that she had found that, I was much more used to people having an alternative response, such as “Why the hell did you make those pictures and who do you think you are?” It was good for her.
Was there was also an issue of someone wanting to burn down your house?
They didn’t say that, but in 1973, when the pictures were first shown at the Witkin’s gallery in New York City, I was invited to do a talk Amhurst College in Massachusetts, which is liberal, free-thinking and bla bla bla. The photography teacher, who invited me to do the talk, started asking me questions after my presentation, “Who do you think you are to take these pictures and to invade people’s lives?” I wasn’t ready for it at that point, so that certainly took me by surprise.
Did this result in you being contacted by the government regarding your images?
No, we have 20-30 years in between. It is a strong content matter, it is a strong topic. I think that the culture of most people in the United States like things to be happy. We invented Disneyland, you didn’t – we like these nice things. But life is not a neat package, it is bloody, it is messy, being alive is uncertain and those are certain characteristics that really attract me. It is at those points where things meet and unexpected things happen, where I feel have an energy of uncertainty, a messyness, that birth can happen. I am not trying to be deep or suggest a metaphorical existentialist relationship here, it is just that things need to happen and when you let them happen (if you’re always in control, then what is going to happen?) then you get the smallest part of your imagination. If you want something different to happen you can’t keep applying the same rules.
You are saying you are not very emotional, but when you were there doing the Morgue Series, how did it effect you personally? Was it a difficult thing to do or where you more practical and thought “Ok, this is a dead body and now I am going to take a picture.”?
I think what I said is that I was not very empathetic. It is not that I didn’t care about her, we actually became friends, but the morgue was a very emotional place for me. It would be very difficult to not respond to these things, these entities, which surely before were living and often in good health and died in an accident or suicide and certainly sometimes of old age. But the bodies that had come to the morgue were the ones of people who in essence weren’t supposed to die.
The morgue happened for me when the Vietnam War ended, a war which I saw as an obscenity. We were still watching stuff on television and listening to things like “We got 43 and a half of them and only two and a half of us!” That is weird, to watch dinner while you are watching people being blown away. I was fortunate to get out of the draft. The whole thing didn’t make sense to me and in 1972, when I decided to make the morgue pictures, it was a different world and Rhode Island was a small place. I went up to the Attorney General, who was probably the only honest politician around at the time, and told him about what I was interested in. His office was across the street from where I went to school, which at that point still had a good reputation, and we talked for an hour. Finally he said “I don’t see any problem with what you propose. We are not the best department, but we don’t have anything to hide.” There was a little bit of delay in terms of formal letters, but then I was given permission over the telephone. His secretary shouted to him “It’s a photographer guy; he wants to know if he can go to the morgue?” And that was it!
You also went to some people’s homes?
Yes, there were pick-ups. Since I had clearance the police let me in.
You mentioned that the Vietnam War was an obscenity to you. We have plenty of wars going on now and I wonder, do ever feel an urge to respond to them through your photography?
It is a natural part of life. I think that I sometimes respond to them, but not in content matter. The response might work out through Susanna and the Elders and The Bullfights or another project. I don’t feel any kind of obligations or an urgency to go to that content matter again. It is more interesting for me at this point to deal with the subject without that specific content.
In our previous conversation you were telling me about your productive years between 1971-1974, when you were photographing in the morgue, in massage parlors on 8th Avenue, in the slaughterhouse, female impersonators and portraits of your children. I wasn’t able to find The Slaughter House series on the Internet. Are they not published?
There are some published. There was one in a show recently that I had at Noorderlicht, but there are also quite a few up at VU, and they took one of the horse pictures in which the horse’s head sort of back, because it’s neck is slit and there is this very nice pool of blood that reflected well with the flash. It was also in a show in Shuttgart in 1995 and in a telephone conversation with the German gallery they suggested that one of my pictures would go on the back of the monograph for the show. I said “Let’s put the horse picture there.” The gallerist, who was British but had lived in Germany for quite a while, stopped talking. There was a pause for about seven seconds and that is a long time in the middle of a conversation. Finally he said “Oh, no. We can’t do that, the Germans love their horses.” I also did some photography in a pig slaughter house, which was much more controlled.
© Jeffrey Silverthorne – Demented Billy
From looking at your work, I got the idea that you are the sort of person who goes on spontaneous trips to unknown destinations.
That’s not me. I go to a place and try to open up and not make the same picture I have made before. I try to listen to people, see what they are doing, watch them, pretend to be nice, you know. And if you ask, it is amazing what people will offer. If you don’t ask, most of the time people won’t offer. So it all depends on how you ask and how you present yourself as well. I don’t mean that I con people, but prior to Internet people were in general much more open to talking and engaging in conversations and being photographed.
Are people paranoid?
I don’t think they are paranoid, only much more guarded. It is not that I can make them relax, but I express my sincere desire to work with them and they either respond or don’t.
©Jeffrey Silverthorne – Annunciation, 2006
Your photography is always unconvential; you clearly always go your own way, and in 2004 your work took an abrupt turn. It takes a lot of courage for a photographer in your position to suddenly decide to a, position yourself in front of the camera and b, move from black and white to color, sometimes with high a high level of saturation and one single light bulb as your source of light.
Where do you get this strength from; what has been your motivation for almost half a century?
I think that curiosity and some sort of wonder is very difficult to maintain and I don’t know, maybe because I took vitamins when I was a kid. Maybe because things don’t make sense to me most of the time, maybe because sometimes when I am really interested in something I want to make it a little more permanent, so that I can flick through a contact sheet and say “Oh, yeah, I remember this and I remember that.” I have recently been looking back at the last 40 years of work, trying to find some images to re-print and I come across pictures that I find much more interesting. I guess I look for things that I find really neat or really weird. Edward Curtis talked about the shadow catchers, and that is kind of what I do, visually. I dump my thoughts into it and then can I forget about it and move on to the next situation maybe a little more fresh.
What are your thoughts regarding the exhibition medium and does the fact that you are represented by commercial galleries have an impact on your work?
I always make pictures and I don’t consider the viewer, at all. While I am editing I am driven by the question “Was this getting what I want?” “Was this getting what I am interested in?” Somewhere down the line, hopefully it is distant, I wonder “Gee! Maybe there is a sucker out there that would buy this stuff?” And then I send it off, or don’t. Preferably I let it wait a couple of years and see if it still has resonance. So you make things and you let go of some controls and it really is a kind of addiction of a microsecond. Although, for a while I made long exposures so I got more fulfillment. There is a thrill there.
©Jeffrey Silverthorne – Making an offer, Series Silent Fires, 1982-1984, 2006
In an interview in connection with your exhibition at The BankRI Galleries in 2010 you mentioned the following: “What I am most interested in photographing are things that people feel strongly to do, whether they are socially acceptable or not, almost as if the thing had taken over the person and yet was an integral part of the person.” How does this relate to your own practice?
Most of the time I try to be fairly reasonable about making pictures and there have been some boundaries that have been suggested by people who I care about; they don’t want me to do anything too weird. I believe that I want to explore a wide range of things that I find curious and that I think are genuine and I have a great deal of difficulty with the word and the concept of authenticity, because I think that we are very socially constructed animals and we do these things and they seem genuine, because millions and millions of other people are doing the same thing. I do however believe that there is an authenticity to doing something that you really have to do. You really need to do this and you are putting at risk something. Now, that doesn’t mean you should do it and it certainly doesn’t mean it is going to be good, but I think that when you are doing that, and you are a little more savvy to ways things have been constructed, it might construct a design to ultimately come to a composition. When I do this I am speaking through many tongues, it is not just a fourth tongue. There are hundreds of tongues, and I think that as a maker you try to engage a lot of these tongues so that the image isn’t stuck in one moment, but both in the time and out of the time.
Now, whether this adds to or allows for the thing to last, who the hell knows, at that moment. Did Giotto really think people would still be paying attention to the Scrovegni Chapel after all these years? I don’t know, actually I don’t care, but I am glad that he made things and that people have preserved much of it to be able to look at the hands and how the hand gestures are used, as a part of the social history, as part of the social communication, because then I can steal from it and I can employ some of those devices. I think that there is a realness to the curiosity, to the desire to see something and the desire to make something. Then the work comes to be in a language that I feel uses as much as I can give to it. Whether you respond to it, that is out of my hands.
© 2009 Le photoblog de Renaud Monfourny