JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 black and white photographic works, generally framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are selenium toned gelatin silver prints, made in 2016. Physical sizes range from 8×10 to 49×81 (or reverse), with the exception being a large scroll-like print that hangs from the ceiling skylight and is sized 252×42. The smaller 8×10 prints are each available in editions of 5; the bigger prints are available in editions of 3 or 5, except for the largest 49×81 print and the hanging print which are unique. A newspaper has been published to coincide with the exhibition and is available from the gallery for free. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: While it might not be obvious today, there was a time when Trenton, New Jersey, was the suspension bridge building capital of America. Back in the early part of the 20th century, when infrastructure projects were booming in the Northeastern cities and across the country, Trenton was the center of design and cable manufacturing for most of New York’s famous bridges, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, and nearly all of the other river crossings that dot the city. It also contributed its expertise to the now iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. So the civic swagger that led the city to boldly bolt the slogan TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES on the side of the local Lower Trenton Bridge across the Delaware River wasn’t entirely unwarranted – its bridges were among the most impressive (and beautiful) feats of industrial architecture ever built.
But most of Trenton’s factories closed in the late 1970s amid the wider decay of American manufacturing, and so now the city’s confident slogan rings a bit hollow. But those five words are still defiantly present, the nine foot letters firmly attached to the criss crossing girders, and after a round of refurbishing in 1984, now lit up with red neon at night. For many, such a sign is merely a puzzling anachronism, overlooked without a thought on the way to work each day. But for the transplanted Southern photographer Jeff Whetstone, whose recent projects have involved the patient observation of rivers, the left over slogan seemed to merit more than just a passing glance.
Using a variety of a cameras (both analog and digital), Whetstone has meticulously documented the individual letters of the sign, capturing them with carefully aligned background horizons and lucky decisive moment interactions with cars and pedestrians. He then seems to have fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole of language, turning his limited alphabet (only the letters on the bridge) into a surprisingly modular linguistic/visual system. Individual frames were then aggregated into words in a process akin to old school typesetting (with negatives, horizontal/vertical symmetry, and flipped reversal offering additional degrees of creative freedom), the resulting taped-together collages then re-exposed/rephotographed as final artworks.
For aficionados of wordy board games like Scrabble and Boggle, Whetstone’s images will feel wholly familiar, the brainy test of discovering which words can be pulled out of a seemingly random group of letters made haltingly photographic. His image titles tell the story of new meanings drawn entirely from the original phrase – Woke, Don’t Know Won’t Know, No No No No, Road Means Road Ends, Hand Hewn, Sh Sh Sh, Homes Owned Words Deeds – like found poetry for those that can decipher the code.
Aesthetically, Whetstone’s composites are boldly graphic. Dark letters are silhouetted against white skies and set against repeated horizontals like the staff lines of a musical score, interrupted by the slashing diagonals of the bridge girders. Visual repetitions coalesce into broader patterns, making connections, continuing ideas, and piling up into dense overlapped multiples, like an overinked printed page. In Heel, Hand, Knee, the collage effect not only forms words, but it also creates the echo of a pyramidal tower, with birds whirling in the sky and water underneath. And in A Wonder, A Wonder, the billowing unrolled visual poem that hangs from the ceiling, the letters become words, and then stanzas, and then a kind of syncopated rhythmic chant.
What makes these pictures work is their layered complexity – where structure becomes its own kind of compositional logic, language becomes a downstream outcome of imagery, process becomes fluid and experimental, and an obsolete phrase becomes the raw material for something new. In the end, it is this smart synthesis of interlocked photographic ideas that kept me looking, even more than the oblique cleverness of the restricted word play.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $1550, $7600, $10700, $11000, $13500, $16000, and $38000, based on size, with the large hanging print available for $65000. Whetstone’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.