“The images are works of art. They exist in art historical categories and they evade an inherent use of death as either a procedural epistemology or body shock tactic.”
Carbon Monoxide poisoning, fatal accident, young lovers entwined beneath two separate folded white shrouds, the tables on which they rest have been pulled to the orifice of the mortuary freezer to be photographed by one man whose right shoe precariously divides the space between their bodies, resting forcefully on the door of the freezer, and here presiding somewhat awkwardly between death below and life from above, is the eye that records movements cut short. The image could be seen as coarse, it could be read as callous and its nature though unintended, could wrongly be misconstrued as shocking and exploitative. The case of the matter is that the image from 1973 of “Lovers, Accidental Carbon Monoxide Poisoning” is but one image in a series of photographs taken by Jeffrey Silverthorne entitled “Morgue Work” that explicitly transcends the sheer brutality of the image making of traumatic ends for a less narrow expression of death in a generally unseen format. How else might you photograph a couple in this condition? Their death has been interwoven, through separated by cold steel and soft cotton. The images are works of art. They exist in art historical categories and they evade an inherent use of death as either a procedural epistemology or body shock tactic.
“Woman Who Died in Her Sleep” from the same body of work is an image that I have had a long history with. I happen to own a vintage print of it. When I first saw the image, it left me paralyzed with uncomfortable feelings that reside in the sub-conscious space between Eros and Thanatos. The lines that adorn the sleeping beauty’s torso-the incision and suture marks that address her nipple as a fold in which the embrace of Endymion rings clear, if serrated. The passive expression, the languid pose- the image lives, it gesticulates and moves-must death be a finality? The drawn parallels of the nude female form and the reach of death towards its embrace seem elusive. It is an uncomfortable image to say the least and for all the reasons that the image does not die with the subject’s condition.
The history of morgue photography is as old as photography itself with tableaux also a prime factor by way of Hippolyte Bayard’s ominously playful “Self- Portrait as a Drowned Man” from 1839, in which the author used his semi-clothed self and a straw hat to convey a political statement regarding his Calotype invention being outpaced by the use of the Daguerreotype, or at least that is the myth. Bayard, reclining in death looks in a way, perhaps more dead than The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep-his dark hands a sign of blood pooling in atrophy. The Nineteenth Century was a period in which infant mortality rates and the lack of medical knowledge and treatment saw life expectancies of people cut short by today’s standards. Living until the age of 70 was not an impossible task, but dying in your 30s or 40s was more common than the push to reign as an octogenarian. Post-mortem photography-images of the dead adorned in ceremonial burial death, open caskets and the unusual image of a family member propped in death on the family chair with toys and dolls placed lovingly in hand was documented for the sake of lasting memories over that of gruesome spectacle. The Victorian way of looking at death was much different than the proceeding years until present-it did not lack sensitivity, but refused to shovel death out of frame and into some hardly quantifiable space in which death and a dead body, like today is seen as something to quarantine, something to fear, and something that should “out of respect for the family” rarely be photographed.
“When I first saw the image, it left me paralyzed with uncomfortable feelings that reside in the sub-conscious space between Eros and Thanatos. The lines that adorn the sleeping beauty’s torso-the incision and suture marks that address her nipple as a fold in which the embrace of Endymion rings clear, if serrated.”
Morgue photography is a slightly different matter in which the process of identification, the record of potential fractures upon the once living was to be used in potential legal cases. It was also not suited for spectacle. It was used as a simple record of the trauma the living body had absorbed and its identity as non-life/tolerable object of information stripped bare of personality and breath. Images of tattoos, images of wounds, images of pieces of people such as severed heads, hands and ears all made their way into what would be perceived as an objective note-taking of the body’s condition. That is not to say that there are not some images of morgue work that are not seen as something else. Jerome Liebling had made a now very seldom discussed series entitled “Cadavers” in 1973 in which the images exceed that of the function of documentation. They became portraiture, but perhaps a lineage of portraiture closer to that of Brueghel than that of Roger Campin.
The famous body of Che Guevara, though not in typical morgue fashion shares a similar state as his execution and body were drawn to the circumference of propaganda, but rather lying prone like the body of Christ in deposition on a horizontal table thus it became greater than the record of objective behaviour. Many references in art historical material have laid the groundwork for these images to be considered of a function higher than that of simple eulogy or record. Granted, the image of Che would also be seen as a spoil of war. A.A.E Disderi also considered the vertically prone dead executed bodies of the communards in 1871 in similar manner. These studies were evidence and propaganda, they were posthumous and they were granted status as spectacle, record and allegory. The 1990s also saw a short rise in the use of morgue photography as way to talk about religion, politics, abjection and Aids. Andres Serrano, Sue fox, Peter Kandhola, Rudolf Schäfer, Hans Danuser, and to some extent Joel-Peter Witkin used the morgue as a place of work. Not all images defy spectacle-certainly not in the case of Witkin. Jeffrey also revisited the morgue in the 80s to create a substantial body of work entitled “Letters from the Dead House” in which polaroids, text and layered imagery between the living and the dead were combined into images that bear a uncanny heavy weight which skitters around the circumference of collective memory and dream state. They become less about document, but perhaps reverberate more about the process of death in the minds of this living and taxing collective memory; abused nostalgia and time in an effort that exceeds the previous morgue work in its uncomfortablitiy.
“Morgue” is a body of work that Silverthorne made between 1972 and 1979. One note of introspection about this series is that it was made at the same time as his “Female Impersonators”, which if the viewer reads in parallel asks more questions about the author and his way of seeing. It draws an interesting parallel to the conjecture of how Silverthorne was thinking about the body and its image in life and death, in gender and in between. The book, published by Stanley/Barker is exceptionally designed and sensitively drawn. Its cold silver cover mimics the steel mortuary “slab” of the morgue tables within and the black saddle stitched suture of the spine also plays to the aesthetic found within the images, notably the woman who dies in her sleep. Inside the book, the images are given some context about the work by the author who recants trying to photograph his dead grandmother as innocuously as possible. He recovers some insight into his process and his near-sacred quest to find his parents through the images who died early in his life. Notes about America and its participation in the Vietnam War also inform some of the process behind the author. Its not an easy book to look at for most people, but it is important. The importance of the work lies in its understated nature. It is sensitive and it is photographed with an air of concern. There are also images surrounding the morgue room from the outside world-boys showboating and smoking as another cadaver bag is loaded into or out of an ambulance. There are images of coroners working in the morgue itself, photographing the bodies and a small hint of what the work is like. These images give the much needed background noise to what is inside the morgue and the portraiture that Silverthorne made. I am grateful the book has been published. Silverthorne has long been overshadowed by other less interesting photographers of the last 40 years. His entire body of work questions a larger conversation worthy of investigating at large. I would also like to salute Stanley/Barker for taking a chance to publish a book like this. Highly Recommended!
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Jeffrey Silverthorne.)