Image above: Tom Butler, Shades, Cut Cabinet Cards, 5.5 x 3.9 in., 2018
“He sprung from the cabin-window, as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the wave and lost in darkness and distance.”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818, p. 424.
These are the final words in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where Victor’s creation, a man built from the appropriated parts of others, jumps from Robert Walton’s ship and “is borne away”, to disappear into the arctic wasteland forever.
Tom Butler, Ash, Cut Cabinet Cards, 4.1 x 6.5 in., 2018
Inspired by this quote, I’ve named this series of landscapes Lost in Darkness and Distance made from the shoulders of Victorian cabinet card sitters—the human’s most horizontal and broadest feature—which are cut, arranged and combined to make mountain ranges. With each card, I look at the shape of a sitter’s jacket, the slope from neck to sleeve and ask, “what kind of landscape could you be?”
Tom Butler, Geo, 2018, Cut Cabinet Cards, 6.25 x 4.5 in., 2019
Our shoulders are our personal landscapes, our hilltop to view the world from. Broad shoulders are judged to be strong and masculine while the opposite is said to be true of narrow, slight shoulders. Both are outdated signifiers, if you ask me. A lot of crying happens on shoulders broad or narrow and thus, to me at least, they hold the promise of safety. Here, inclines and synclines of both genders are brought together to suggest far away land-masses: a faded strip suggests a distant haven or a gentleman’s lapel part of a rocky outcrop, and while these landscapes may appear distant, I hope they also speak to a sense of destination or hope. Where possible the titles are appropriations, too, lifted directly from the mess of embossed text at the bottom of the cards. These once denoted the original photographer’s name and location, another figure now lost to time, but here it lives on as a place: Washington becomes “Ash” Massachusetts becomes “Mass.”
Tom Butler, Port, Cut Cabinet Cards, 4.2 x 6.6 in., 2018
Tom Butler, Mass, Cut Cabinet Cards, 4.3 x 6.6 in., 2018
Left: Tom Butler, Land, Cut Cabinet Cards, 4.2 x 6.5 in., 2018
While Frankenstein’s dream was to create a living person from the parts of others, no appropriation can restore actual life. One day we will all become part of the landscape, whether buried in or scattered over it, and we will merge with it as the original sitters of these photographs would have done perhaps over a century ago. I hope to create something both old and new so that these men and women are no longer lost to the distance of time as they would have been if left to gather dust in the antiques shop. They were not so different from us as we will not be so different from the artists a hundred years from now who, I hope, will appropriate the millions of jpegs we will leave behind.