Joel-Peter Witkin

Is his darkly imaginative photography an intellectually camouflaged freak show or high art?

Published May 9, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

"We often look away when confronted with imagery of the sick, the deformed, the dead and dying, but in the nineteenth century there was a brisk trade in such photographs of "the other"; the circus freak, the bearded lady, Siamese twins, and so forth were popular subjects to be collected and traded. To the extent that we worry about exploitation of bodies which do not conform to the norm or suffer from some affliction, our reticence is humane; but to the extent that we refuse to confront the human condition, it is pathological."

-- William A. Ewing

"The Body: Photoworks of the Human Form"

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True perverts are born, not made.

Those who are truly bewitched by a good/evil power play in their sexuality, those who have a deep impulse to stick pins in their scrotums and hooks in their nipples, or be mummified, tied up and caned by mean women in tall boots, are slightly different from other people.

Those who have tried to embrace a more "kinky" sexuality than the one they naturally possess and found themselves lacking the vital chromosome necessary know what I mean. To the so-called normal brain of the average sexual pedestrian, the black latex, hardware and dire theatrics seem more campy and silly than erotic.

The true perv, however, needs and believes in a fearful, deviant badness and hellishness in sexuality, and responds to it with all the mordant, ritualistic seriousness and ceremony of a Black Mass. If you have ever watched someone handle a pair of spike-heeled shoes with trembling awe, while you giggled uncomfortably, you know what I'm talking about.

I believe that Joel-Peter Witkin is a true, born pervert - in the visual sphere that is. What his sexual predilections are I wouldn't know. Witkin is a photographer who has been mistaken for a grave robber, whose works were described by Marina Isola in TheMet as "Part Hieronymus Bosch, part 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre.'"

He has been the reigning king of deviant imagery -- indeed, the thinking Goth's favorite artist -- since he came to public acclaim in the 1980s with his delicately posed corpses and bravely naked mutants, floridly arranged in beaten-silvertone, antique nightmare-scapes.

Witkin's visual world evokes a Byronesque mortician's playroom from some particularly grim 19th century fairy tale, or a weird and ghastly accident of the arts that everyone would sooner put behind them -- the Renaissance, Picasso, Miro, Mapplethorpe and Buquel after a horrific spin through a large blender; everybody's legs and arms missing, recognizable styles poking through among the tattered meats, genitals and mercury.

Joel-Peter Witkin tore his way out of the womb on Sept, 13, 1939, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father was a Jewish glazier, his mother a Roman Catholic who worked in a DDT plant. His parents were unable to transcend their religious differences and the two divorced when Witkin was young, the boy remaining with his mother. He attended grammar school at Saint Cecelia's in Brooklyn, and went on to Grover Cleveland High School.

In his 1998 book "The Bone House," Witkin claims that his unique visual sensibilities began to churn when, as a small child, he witnessed a terrible car accident in front of his home, in which a little girl was decapitated. He recalls her head rolling to his feet, her dead eyes staring upward. Witkin also cites urban crime photographer Weegee as an early influence.

In an interview with Michael Sand that appeared in World Art in January 1996, Witkin credited his father for having instilled his own latent photographic ambitions in his young son:

He took me aside and showed me some clips from Life magazine or Look magazine, the Daily Mirror, or the News (he wasn't a New York Times reader). I was about 5, and I knew when he was showing me these photographs that he was telling me he couldn't do this, but maybe there was a chance that part of him could, somehow, through me. Without saying it, I looked at him, and I knew, and he knew, that I could try.

In his 1995 book "Witkin," the photographer writes: "I began making photographs when I was sixteen. That same year, Edward Steichen selected one of my photographs to be included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. That was the beginning of a life devoted to photography."

After high school, Witkin got jobs that would enable him to learn the nuts and bolts of photographic technique. He worked as a color photography printer until he enlisted in the Army in 1961, where he served as a technical sergeant and worked as a photo technician and a photographer, documenting assorted military accidents, until 1964.

After the Army, he returned to New York and worked as a professional freelance assistant for technical, medical and commercial photographers. He earned a BFA from Cooper Union on the G.I. Bill, studying sculpture, and received a fellowship in poetry from Columbia University. In 1974, Witkin was awarded a CAPS grant in photography through the New York State Council on the Arts.

In 1976, Witkin went on to pursue his graduate and postgraduate work in photography at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. While there, he received a Ford Foundation grant in 1977. And in 1978 he married his wife, Cynthia, a tattoo artist. The two live in Albuquerque with their son, Kirsten-Ahanu Witkin, and Mrs. Witkin's lover, Cynthia Cook, and another woman by the name of Barbara Gilbert, whose apparent function is to care for the post-nuclear family's three dogs.

The '80s, in their naively serious, death-rock demimonde tone, were good to Joel-Peter Witkin. He was awarded a flurry of NEA grants in 1982, 1984 and 1986 and received his MFA in 1986 from the University of New Mexico.

Over the years he'd developed an involved and zealous process for making his prints, which resulted in the silvery, found-antique quality his work became known for. Witkin scratches the negatives, then prints them through tissue paper to fuzz the texture of the image, giving the prints a specifically blurry, "timeless" quality. He then mounts the image on aluminum and applies pigments by hand. Finally, he covers the photographs with hot beeswax and reheats them, then cools and polishes. With this procedure, Witkin, a rabid perfectionist, produces an average of 10 of his coldly luxurious finished prints in a year.

Witkin's engrossing work paid off, and he continued to receive many of the best grants and awards the art world had to offer: In 1988, he received the International Center of Photography Award and the Distinguished Alumni Citation from Cooper Union; in 1990, the French minister of culture awarded Witkin the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres; in 1993 he earned a residency in France through the NEA and the American Center in Paris. What's more, he had the unquestioning reverence of all the ultra-cool, black-clad hipsters and morbid dirge-rock bands.

Witkin's subject matter is, in fact, atrocity itself, or anyone who looks like a victim of it, by accident or unfortunate birth. In 1985, he ran this advertisement to solicit models, asking the following people to contact him:

Pinheads, dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks, pre-op transsexuals, bearded women, people with tails, horns, wings, reversed hands or feet, anyone born without arms, legs, eyes, breast, genitals, ears, nose, lips. All people with unusually large genitals. All manner of extreme visual perversion. Hermaphrodites and teratoids (alive and dead). Anyone bearing the wounds of Christ.

Witkin succeeded in reaching so many amputees, pre-operative transsexuals and other pinnacles of unseen society as modeling fodder that in 1989 he added to his original request: "women whose faces are covered with hair or large skin lesions willing to pose in evening gowns. People who live as comic-book heroes, boot, corset and bondage fetishists. Anyone claiming to be God. God."

God is a big theme for Witkin. Like many good perverts, Witkin seems to suffer from what I like to call "Catholic burn." As a practicing Roman Catholic, he appears to be obsessed with the fetishizing of everything nasty on the fringes of Jesus' world, of all the "other" stuff ordinarily shunned by suburban philistines and the religiously repressed: freaks, violated corpses, fists up the ass, bondage, etc.

But Witkin routinely insists it's not for prurient reasons. Oh, no. His work is a product of his higher religious leanings: "The images tended to repel and shock. Yet, I believe they possessed tender and enlightened qualities which were strangely moving ... the figures were always isolated because the Sacred is always beyond nature, beyond existence."

As Witkin explained to the Seattle Times in 1994, "My work shows my journey to become a more loving, unselfish person."

While art-pop intellectuals devoured his work gleefully as an excellently trendy, shocking blackboard to wank long-haired Lacan/Foucault-inspired postmodern critiques over, the Christian Coalition was unmoved by Witkin's search for the divine. Objecting to a $20,000 NEA grant Witkin received in 1992, NEA foes featured the Witkin print "Testicle Stretch With the Possibility of a Crushed Face" in their 1993 anti-NEA protest in Washington.

Fans celebrate Witkin's ability to make the ugly beautiful, and champion his work as an explosion of mankind's refusal to confront and embrace the abject. Others, like 1993 Artforum contributor Keith Seward, argue that Witkin

often claims to see himself as "loving the unloved, the damaged, the outcasts," and such unconditional acceptance characterizes his work in general: like St. Francis of Assisi, who drank the pus of lepers in order to overcome his repulsion of them, Witkin is not a rubbernecker, an exploiter or a pessimist, but one who says Yes to everything questionable, even to the terrible. Why would you want to say Yes to death, dismemberment, or any of the other staples in Witkin's banquet of the bizarre? It's sort of like an extreme form of multiculturalism, a respect for that which is drastically foreign to you, even terrifying.

Germano Celant, who was curator of contemporary art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1995 when Witkin had his retrospective, explains the photographer's importance with the following:

The formless and the deformed, the base and the terrifying must be brought back into the light. In this sense Witkin works with Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe to ensure that the notion of "cruelty" is no longer hostile but is transformed into a cognitive nucleus purged of its dark and negative connotations.

Despite all controversies, and despite the fact that Witkin's photographs came to the art world at a time when works of photography were rarely permitted the mantle of "high art," Witkin prints wormed their ways into the permanent collections of the world's foremost museums, among others, the Bibliothhque Nationale in Paris, the San Francisco MoMA, Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, the New York MoMA, the Whitney.

Witkin's greatest artistic accomplishment may be the deal he was able to work out with a hospital morgue in Mexico City, which allowed him to sift through its daily supply of anonymous corpses picked up from the streets and cavalierly manipulate them into "art." "I am no longer the helpless observer," explains Witkin, "but the objectifier who chooses to share the 'hell' of his confusion visually, rather than confront the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body."

The World Art interview with Sand fully demonstrates Witkin's unflinchingly ghoulish approach to becoming a more loving, unselfish person: He discusses a time when he stayed a few extra days in Mexico City, because he "wasn't getting the bodies [he] wanted." Witkin was able to convince the men from the morgue to not simply throw the bloated corpses onto their faces in the truck, because this routinely broke their noses, making them unsightly.

Witkin described one of the dead men brought in on the last day as "a real punk, nothing good visually." But he used him anyway: "For some people, the evidence of their spirit is either there or not there in death. Nonetheless, when I saw this last guy, I said, 'I want him.' I'm in this room with a dead guy. I'm propping him up, and I put a fish in his hand as a kind of prop, and I'm checking the lighting. I take a few photographs. And as soon as he's being autopsied, he starts changing! ... I turn to my Mexican translator, who is a very, very bright man, and we have seen the same thing. He says, 'He's being judged. This guy is being judged right now.'"

"Suddenly, he's not a punk any more. He's gone through this kind of transfiguration on the table, on the autopsy table. I say to the technician, 'Don't wash him down. I want all the blood from the suturing.' When they were carrying the brain, I said, 'Look at this brain -- it may have contained thoughts of evil, but however he was judged, he is now a different presence!'"

Witkin goes on to claim the corpse's fingers had miraculously grown an extra 50 percent, as if he were "reaching for eternity."

In another Mexican morgue episode, Witkin described how he created "Feast of Fools," one of his more fetching still-life prints, which features a dead baby slumped amid fruity abundance. He told Sand of his horror upon discovering a drawer full of bodily fluids with severed arms, legs, eyes, penises and little children floating around in them. "Because the bureaucracy is so incredibly corrupt, no one had said 'get this stuff out of here.' No one had the balls to do it. That time I did say, 'Why am I doing this?'"

But Witkin's divine mission prevailed over his outrage, and he liberally utilized the drawer's contents. "I did have the belief that there was a purpose to my being there," he concludes, "that I could make something beautiful."

Witkin is undeterred by naysayers, maintaining that those who don't like his work in actuality don't understand it. Says Witkin, "Those who understand what I do appreciate the determination, love and courage it takes to find wonder and beauty in people who are considered by society to be damaged, unclean, dysfunctional or wretched. My art is the way I perceive and define life. It is sacred work, since what I make are my prayers."

You can imagine Joel-Peter Witkin's bloated statements explaining himself springing from the mouth of Dieter on "Saturday Night Live": "I am a dark poem. When every moment is transcendent, then images presented here will be seen as they truly were, photographs from a time resplendent in the atrocity we once called life. Touch my monkey."

In "Bone House," Witkin speaks of his realization in adulthood that his camera was, in fact, his response to the child's decapitated head that allegedly rolled into his childhood, that his camera is, in fact, "Her face!" (Mordant psycho-chord from echoey church organ. Bats flying out of belfry.)

Witkin, like a perfect '80s persona-star, never drops the mask of Serious Diremaster, never lets on whether he is giggling at how he has been able to peddle a titillating rubberneck image as "high art" via his considerable talent. But he became king of his artistic niche: those who wholeheartedly embraced body modification and other outlaw alterations of kinkiness that the late '80s and early '90s wrought on the human body. All the kids with five pounds of metal on their lips and eyebrows who've stuck their dicks in dirty animals of the night to find that cool, tar-colored "truth" will always put a Witkin on their Web site, now and forever, because they don't drop their masks, either.

For all of his nonstop posturing, at odd blasts in the Witkin collection there are simpler pieces that I feel actually pull off his higher intentions better than the more sensational, Rococo works.

"Baccante," a photo of a woman from the back, leaning, with one shriveled arm and one large arm, next to a distorted skull, asks the viewer whether deformity is only a question of perspective: Is her arm shriveled, or is it just photographically distant? Like cubist works and those of Pablo Picasso, Witkin's simpler images have less a feeling of deformity than of an illumination of the non-omniscient gaze of the viewer: You don't see all sides, you can't see everything, so don't judge.

Much of his work, however, despite his darkly fertile imagination and masterful printing process, can be labeled a fairly straightforward freak show, with Witkin utilizing little more than a mask and the nudity of the abnormal subject as a means of transporting his lofty message -- a message all too easily inferred as purely prurient.

The work is beautiful enough to be "real art," but it is still an intellectually camouflaged, carny peep show of the most debased and obvious water. You can put as many flowery wreaths and as much gorgeous photo technique as you want around a dead baby, and it will be art, yes, but it is still a dead baby. It is still a sideshow for the morbidly curious, regardless of how much Witkin may drone on about the deeply religious quality of his work.

In my angrier years I thought Witkin's photographs were a great metaphor for everything, especially Hollywood: "Look, at first sight, it is a sumptuous banquet, an abundant horn of plenty. Look closer, it is in reality a human arm, being eaten by a one-legged dog, etc."

Now I say Joel-Peter Witkin's photographs are pretty, a visually avant-garde and "hep" take on the standard Pottery Barn timelessness, a good post-punk twist on shabby chic. Yes, a Witkin would look perfect on my wall right over my zucchini-green velvet love seat. Ooh! Daring.

I've always liked his photographs; I like to look at them, the same way I used to like to look at the RESearch "Freaks" book, or read the National Enquirer or listen to Bauhaus. Now, however, like these other comestibles, they have become dated. Witkin has sifted down into my consciousness as being essentially the Anne Rice of photography, certainly deserving of his place on the shelf with all of the other fine staples of Goth-style shock-rock -- Nine Inch Nails, Michael Gira and the Swans, all that nasty Baudelaire yadda yadda, black-clad ultra-serious teenaged Todesangst.

Ultimately, all that careful work just looks trivial to me, silly, lowbrow and campy, because of the hard-headed perversion of the subject matter. I laugh at Witkin pictures the same way I laugh at pictures of my former self in all that eyeliner I used to wear and those pointy "Cure" boots with the skull buckles.

We all need our fright-wig period, but only the most fearful artists feel such a heavy, pounding need to express adolescent, in-your-face ideas about life, death, mortality and culture for the entirety of their careers. The artists I respect get more irreverent with age while, at the same time, they humanize; they lighten up, they drop the old mask, they actually start to care about things more and open up a little, laughing about things they used to take to heart as deathly serious. They evolve -- for better or worse.

While '80s direness icons like Diamanda Galas and Henry Rollins have lightened up and are even capable of making fun of their old, dark disciplines of persona, Witkin is still cranking out big black books of self-important horror with titles like "Harm's Way: Lust & Madness, Murder & Mayhem." The enigma wears thin after a while; the mechanical Head of Fire becomes transparent. If the nerdy little wizard in the booth is able to get over himself and wave hello, you realize he isn't such a bad guy after all.

It's too much work, too much double talk, to try to art up the ruse any harder, past a certain point -- to try to ascribe too much meaning to it all. Call it a good blast of horror fiction. It's more fun that way.

Oh, Joel-Peter, take your black cape off and stop scowling at the picture window. Come in and eat Thanksgiving dinner with the rest of the family.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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