Jeff Silverthrone: In the Throes of Decay

By April Rapier

"Since 1971 I have worked primarily with the nude figure. While photographing dead animals, female impersonators, wrestlers, prostitutes, and landscapes, I began a new pro­ject in 1971 to which I devoted most of my time for the next two years: photographing in a state morgue."
"Trivia- the enormous impor­tance of trivia. . . "
— Jeffrey Silverthorne
I did not begin exploring Mr. Silverthorne’s work under the influence of these, or any other prefaces. Nor was I surprised at the tone (peaceful, centered, in command of the origins of the work) he used when I questioned him at length. Yet I remain some­what at a loss to reconcile the macabre aura of violation with the overall feeling of placid resolve in these dense, rich, autobiographical illustrations. I return, time after time, to the themes of death and futility, which range in expression from barbarous utterances to the 1oveliest of subtle spirituality. The pictures acknowledge but do not embrace the darker side of life/death, so that the aging of a body, the decrepitude of age, the "scream, howl, kiss" can be over­ridden, translated from the literal to a more palatable metaphor. The classical elements (the photographer's directorial posture, the model’s pose of disinterest, fruit and pedestals, romance, an indirect acknowledgement of sensuality, a reference to "horniness", monologue versus dialogue, pedagogic intent versus observer participation) distance and editorialize the sensationalism that moves through these images
Shakespeare or the theatre of the absurd (Beckett) come to mind m the “Silent Fires” series: the viewer is often confronted by a narrator in The foreground, gesturing frantically to expect the worst. Yet one goes away uncon­vinced, because the characters' anguish is anonymous, ambiguous, the relationships between prin­cipals layered and ambivalent. That all the surprises are up front is a relief, because the images stay put in the mind, taking on new forms and attitudes, ulti­mately leading toward the antici­pation, the religion of success. Silverthorne cites the myth of Orpheus and Euridice as the origin of Silent Fires. When asked about other influences, Silver­thorne mentions Stephen, Cal­lahan, Rembrandt, Mozart, and Rickie Lee Jones, among others. Certainly, the cast of characters in “Silent fires” is reminiscent of sculpture in the throes of decay. The quality of movement from life to death neutralizes the sexuality of youth. Silverthorne dusts the backdrops and models with powder to create a stony, aged pallor, but his concerns are prac­tical as well, the whiteness of the powder also “increases con­trast in the negative". There is great serenity in the staging of these guileless dramas, except for the ethereal lighting- blankets of distraction that conjure up the presence of the Gods (that so punished Orpheus by giving him a second chance) — that illuminates heavenly, sacred spots singled out in the set. The beauty of the imagery is that it is non-judg­mental. He returns often to the phrase "no way out'' in reference to Silent Fires- with the inexorable as a premise, the burden of the image as instructive is lifted.
Some of the sexual ambiguity has an emasculation edginess to it, the whimsical Gods interfering and intervening beyond the play's stage directions. This potential loss of control empowers the madness of futility. Equal time is given to male and female nudity-Questions are incessantly posed: the morgue pictures present a peacefulness in death, whereas the living elsewhere seem anguished. The benefit of aging, the body falling into disarray, is that the soul grows more serene and elegant. Yet the contradictions and paradoxes are difficult to acknowledge. Bounds are easily broken, but they are devised nevertheless. In one image from Silent Fires, a woman is held motionless within a cage, a captive angel. Only an angel would stay still. The pedestal on which the models perch isn't made of marble at all - it is shaky, old, made of wood. The pears (ubi­quitous throughout Silent Fires) inhabit a far more secure and comfortable place where they rest. All activity is perfunctory: the end has been written. The same feeling is found in the Waiting Room series, precursors to Silent Fires, although more documentation and less dramatic devices find their way in. Interspersed throughout the years of image making are photographs of enormous calm and simplicity, necessary intervals to the maintenance of such an intense constitutional pace.
After weaving quite a spell over the pictures we discussed, Mr. Silverthorne brought up the formalistic theme of hope, the wish for all things to right themselves. His denouements turn out happily in the long run, despite the odds. The many years and pictures that are the result of an intelligent quest cannot readily be con­densed in an article of ideas. Yet after spending time with Silverthorne’s photographs, it is easy to feel the power and beauty of his determination and the understanding of a grander design is a natural conclusion of the experience of them. I join the Houston community in wishing Mr. Silverthorne a warm welcome, and a most successful year.