Photographer Jeffrey Silverthorne focuses on the more unusual aspects of life that many people oversee. In his more than 40 years as an artist, he has continued to shed a different light on his subject matter.
“I don’t think about photography when I take a picture," he said. "I think from photography I learn what I don’t want.”
His first major work, Morgue Work, was started in 1972 as a response to the Vietnam War. He found dead bodies very interesting, especially those handled by the state, those who had died "unexpectedly or from unknown causes.” Along with the Vietnam War, some inspiration to work with and photograph the dead came from Diane Arbus, who had been photographing these subjects with other intentions. Silverthorne photographed dead bodies from real morgues. He did not change their positions or do anything to alter the situations. What the audience sees in the photograph is exactly how he first found the bodies. “I had no expectation for collaboration,” he said. He called the Morgue Work, “a border of society, of life and not life.”
Silverthorne focuses often on the transitions of life and other transitory subjects photographed include transvestites. These photographs were taken in 1973, but Silverthorne noted, "not shown that much.” He explained that they were first shown in a gallery in New York City, but other than that they were “not particularly notable. It’s less usual than landscape, but it’s still more usual than, I don’t know, a picture of John McCain French kissing a dog,” he said with a laugh. When asked if it was difficult for him to get these people to participate in the photographs he responded, “People who are proud of their transformation are often happy to display it.” He explained that the models were happy just to be recognized, and even more so back in the 1970s. .He paid them in prints of the photographs they were in.
Although the transvestites were not in it to make money, Silverthorne said otherwise of the prostitutes he photographed for his Texas-Mexico Border prints. “They were more than happy to have their pictures taken, but I took up business time,” he said. He explained that the prostitutes in the pictures were prostitutes only because of their financial situation. “If they had the means to have a job that paid, with dignity, I don’t think anyone would prostitute themselves if they didn’t have to.”
The important thing about his photographs is not the controversy they could bring, but rather the psychological message behind them. Silverthorne said that with Morgue Work, he learned that it is much more difficult to make a photograph with such strong or unusual content matter that really says something beyond its subject. “The picture had to be a picture further psychologically,” he said.
Although Silverthorne’s photography has been displayed throughout America and Europe--most recently in a solo exhibition in Arles, France-- he admitted he creates his art for himself. “I like it at first because I’m a part of the idea," he said. "That doesn’t mean I’ll like them in six months from now.”
Recently he revisited photographs that were part of the Texas-Mexico Border project, but never printed. “It’s interesting to see them freshly," he said. "Thirty five years later and I looked at some of it and it was very interesting to me.”
Not everyone, of course, likes what he does. Recently he found a blog in which someone had responded to Morgue Work with a comment like,“He would do anything for a photograph – even step on dead bodies."
“No one asks me for accuracy,” Silverthorne said. “It’s really important to separate me from my work. The work is of me, but it is not me.”
As unique an artist as he is, Silverthorne has done some commercial work, but he tries to put a unique spin on it. “Recently I did a portrait, a picture of a writer, for his dusk jacket for his book coming out in November," he said. "I wanted to satisfy his wants. It’s sort of commercial. It’s not product photography. It still asks questions of identity.” Along with this dust jacket, he has also done another, for an audio cassette. The most commercial piece of work he’s done was that jacket for Nine Inch Nail’s Pretty Hate Machine in 1989. "I really thought of [photography] as a career, one you never expect to make money at,” he said. “To expect to make money is ludicrous. It’s more important to have skills than to make money, and to be less fettered by public taste.”
Silverthorne is heading back to France in January and although traveling has been rewarding, he holds something else up as more important. “At a photography conference in the early '80s--it was a beautiful setting on the water--I was walking back to my bungalow where I was staying and this thinnish, smallish woman came up to me and asked ‘Excuse me, are you Jeffrey Silverthorne?’ And every time I hear someone ask that I think, ‘Oh no, what did I do now? It wasn’t me.’"
But Silverthorne said "yes" and the woman thanked him for making the morgue pictures. "It turns out that her husband was lost during the Vietnam War and she always wondered if he was ever going to come back," he explained. "After she had seen Morgue Work, she realized he wasn’t.
"That freed me," he continued. "The real work was what she did. What I did was, well, just what I did. But she did the very strong work.”