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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Joel-Peter Witkin


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The work of Joel-Peter Witkin can only be described as photography of the grotesque. Everything about his work is grotesque: the subject matter, the models, the printing process, the final image. It’s a perfect storm of grotesquery.

Witkin began to gain a strange sort of prominence in the photographic art world in the mid-1970s with a series of images that seemed to revolve around the world of sado-masochism. I say “seemed” because Witkin insists his work is primarily religious. He interprets the ecstatic suffering of masochists as similar to that of Christ. That view, obviously, distresses a lot of people…including members of Congress, who eventually used Witkin’s work as evidence that funding to the National Endowment for the Arts should be cut. Witkin has received at least four NEA grants.

Witkin’s arrival in the photographic art world could almost have been predicted. He began taking photographs in 1956 when he was sixteen. By the following year Edward Steichen had selected one of Witkin’s photos for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. After high school, he took a job in a color printing lab. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1961; he was assigned to be a photographer, though most of his work involved documenting military accidents. After his military service, he worked in a variety of technical and medical photography departments while attending college. In 1976, he received an MFA; the next year he was awarded his first arts grant.

It all sounds so normal. One finds it hard to reconcile the photographs with the reality that Witkin was a kid who grew up in Brooklyn and attended schools with such mundane names as St. Cecelia’s and Grover Cleveland High School.

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By the mid-1980s Witkin had moved beyond SM-based images into studies of what he calls “the infinite will of God.” By that he meant people with deformities. He placed an ad looking for models, asking for “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. 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.

And he got responses. Lots of responses. And Witkin’s photographs took on an even more bizarre aura…as in the image above. The figure looks like a broken mannequin; it is, in fact, a living person whose mother took thalidomide to combat morning sickness. He was born armless, legless, without ears, without eyelids, with a half-formed penis and with half-formed skin. He lives in bandages that have to be regularly moistened. According to Witkin, when this man signed his model release he made the following request: “Whatever you do, Joel, make me look like a real human being.”

Is that possible? What makes a person “a real human?” And if it IS possible to make that man look like a real human, was Witkin able to do it?

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Witkin’s work grew more outlandish and macabre when he worked out an arrangement with a hospital in Mexico City. They allowed him free access to the anonymous corpses and body parts delivered to their morgue so he could incorporate them into his art.

With each escalation in his work, Witkin faced an equal escalation in both praise and condemnation. He has been accused of exploitation of his subjects…both dead and living. He has been called a sensationalist, a pervert, a degenerate of the first order. He has also been called a genius, an artist, and a photographer whose “restlessness and desire…leads him to places others fear.”

All of those things might be true. As for Witkin, he says “I will be remembered as a Christian artist.”

One thing everybody agrees on is that Witkin is a brilliant, if obsessive, print-maker. He prints the negatives through tissue paper. He’s been known to drench his prints in tea or coffee. He covers them with wax, which he heats to create a sort of polish. He scratches the negatives with razor blades, he pokes them with pins. He tortures and abuses and mutilates his work in a way that seems to mirror his subjects.

And he works slowly. Very slowly. Incredibly slowly. Witkin produces about 10 new prints a year.

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Witkin is no longer the star of the bleeding edge of art photography. His work still sells for thousands of dollars. It’s still sought-after by collectors and is displayed in museums throughout the world. But his luster has dimmed.

Perhaps this is because Witkin’s work hasn’t really evolved over the last thirty years. His subject matter may have gotten more extreme, but he’s still producing essentially the same type of photographs.

In the end, a meticulously printed still life photograph with a severed head and a plate of fruit has to work as a still life photograph. What draws the attention to Witkin’s work is not the still life; it’s the severed head. It’s not the quality of the light, it’s not the composition, it’s not the brilliantly-produced print; it’s the severed head.

Maybe genius doesn’t have to evolve. Maybe that sort of monomaniacal obsession is a significant facet of his peculiar genius. I don’t know.

What I *do* know is that for me his work never quite progresses beyond the severed head.