Any mention of Joel-Peter Witkin’s remarkable oeuvre immediately brings to mind three of his most dissimilar photographic achievements: The Woman with the Blue Hat (1985), the unforgettably seductive image of a voluptuous, partially quadriplegic woman photographed in her undergarments against a lush backdrop, and generating what the model herself called an Edwardian nightmare; the deeply chilling Man without a Head (1993), for which the artist photographed a recently dead, headless man easily weighing over 200 pounds, and as opposed to capturing him à la morgue, lying face up and naked, violates the forensic anonymity by positioning him on a chair and giving him a pair of socks; and Corpus Medicus (2000), the photograph said to condense Witkin’s preoccupation with dwarfs, hermaphrodites, amputees, transsexuals, and his own spirituality to a single, utterly perfect image: the lower half of a reclining male cadaver, with the light emanating from its perfectly-severed form suggesting the finesse of a 19th-century still life painting, but also the undeniable presence of God.
For over three decades, Joel-Peter Witkin’s visual complexity has aroused, puzzled, and haunted viewers. Structured as nude studies (as much painted photographs as photographed paintings), his photographic images elude formalism and current-ness in favour of constant transformation and a grandly inspired search for meaning. Void of all shyness, they address the afterlife and pre-life, good and evil, initiation and induction, sexuality and spirituality, and they cull from these fate-ridden dualities a heightened sense of their models’ human conditions. Such images move between the material and immaterial worlds as much as they reign over real life and real belief. In this respect, they waver, as it were, between categories and emotions; they convey a merging of majesty and silent suffering. While harbouring an objectified belief in Christ, if mainly a photographically-induced Christ, they celebrate, in particular, the sensuality of women, the wearing of masks and disguises, and an unapologetic presentation of deformity.
Acutely aware of the inner depths of the Self and the soul, Witkin’s insightful visualizations of the carnal and the spiritual reach the poetic heights and excesses associated with visionary artists such as Redon, Kubin, Dalí, and Picasso. Yet for all their metaphysical, erotic and religious impulses; their grotesque and nightmarish posturing; their otherworldly humour and art-historical reinterpretations in dialogue with Goya, Velázquez, Bosch, Corot, and other artists, these complex images are essentially about the photographer himself.
Witkin’s personal universe presents a photographic labyrinth inhabited by time-jarred monstrosities and metaphysical experiments, but also a dense and visually rich, inner-puzzle imbued with strong beliefs. Naturally, Witkin’s own beliefs govern the twists and turns of this studio-maze of the self, where photography claims the right to abolish distinctions such as masculine and feminine, normal and abnormal, desirable and repugnant, with the visual results casually hinting at Picasso’s sly remark about beauty: “There is no such thing.” Not only do the photographer’s beliefs neutralize social taboos, they usurp classical thinking (even classical horror), as we know it. Here the conventional pursuit of truth championed by suiting actions to words and holding up a mirror to nature—the same truth that Hamlet suggests to the actors in Shakespeare’s play-in-a-play—undergoes substantial alterations. In this contemporary configuration, the word is pure act and the mirror is nature itself.
Photographically, the Witkinesque presence is synonymous with a prayer to God from within a saintly darkness, and its primordial depths honour a realm where notions of the “other” and self-reflection represent higher states of being. As it could only happen in the worlds of art and photography, this exceptional understanding of humanity makes it possible for Witkin to create flesh, dictate life and death, and invent (and elevate) the human conscience. Finally, it develops a sacred space around the characters and incidents visualized in his photographs.
Though not always visible, Witkin’s drawings are similar to the sketches a sculptor might make beforehand. Together with the featured artworks, scenic backdrops, and writings that complete the print, they underscore the expansive technique and large amount of mythology work in the background. But the rigorous creative process is not what qualifies as new. What seems to happen for the first time is having the visual and literary qualities of the photographs approach a counterfactual situation.
The field of psychology describes counterfactual thinking as generating thoughts about options not selected in life, and usually with regret. Regarding real or imagined situational alternatives, human disposition excels in asking “What if?” And this self-imposed condition of the mind has curious after-effects. How could it not—when from no more than a fleeting doubt it manages to form an obsession, which later serves as an alternative reality? Perpetual “What if?” thinking (like perpetual anticipation) keenly re-establishes where our sense of right and wrong comes into being. Most exciting, however, is the fact that counterfactual thinking becomes more real in relation to what the thinker believes should or could happen. In the framework of Witkin’s Counterfactuals, this cognitive addition functions like a psychological window inserted into a metaphysical wall. So the spectacle of correlations and references visualizing the human conscience becomes far more transparent. In turn, newer dialogues (image-and-word constructions) are lured into existence, and a wide range of protagonists—from a breast-baring bride to an indoor Saint Sebastian; from a masked, half-naked woman disguised as a Cubist fly to a human head part of an elegant still life; from a coy pederast, cradling a costumed rabbit, to a mannish-looking nun guarding a bored dominatrix—instigate the incessant questioning at large. They demonstrate facts and opposing facts, desires and opposing desires, dreams and non-dreams. At times whimsically and heartfelt, at others scientifically and dispassionately, the collected visual data and texts seem to redefine the logistics of human awareness.
Karl Johnson: Your photography seems born of forbidden social rituals on the one hand, and extreme human conditions on the other. At the same time, it burrows into art history in order to generate additional material for bewildering visual combinations that raise our awareness of the spirit and flesh. It has a strong effect on our senses and sense of reality. What do you think makes your type of metaphysical-erotic gaze so effective today?
Joel-Peter Witkin: We live in a world with no moral or aesthetic compass. That is what my work speaks to. That is why I make the work. I take on western civilization’s highs and lows through the medium of photography.
KJ: Nearly thirty-five years ago, after studying art at the University of New Mexico, you wrote a three-part thesis, Revolt against the Mystical, detailing your concepts and intentions. This still reads like the definitive explanation of your art and methods. Regarding your latest series, Counterfactuals, how much of your 1976 thesis still applies? How did you arrive at the title Counterfactuals?
JPW: The purpose of life for everyone is to evolve in maturity, spirituality, awareness, and to live. Counterfactuals is, of course, a contemporary scientific word, and it refers to an area in the mind where consciousness arises.
KJ: Your knowledge of living and dead bodies, and their appearances, makes you more of an “artist creator,” in the sense of an artist who creates life and death in his images. But fewer physical anomalies and so-called freaks appear in Counterfactuals. Instead, we seem to see intimate acts of fate, visionary moments of delirium, and internalized tragedy. Would you say that this make your creator role more like that of a “fantastic historian”?
JPW: I am over seventy-years-old. I have been making photographs, or I should say “living in photographs,” for over forty years now. This has given me deeper and deeper insights into creating images that show our humanity, our mystery, and our potential to the history of my soul.
KJ: Three visual qualities, in particular, appear to be staples of your photography: a kind of 19th-century daguerreotype aesthetic, strong contrasts, and post-processing techniques that lend the photograph the qualities of a painting and collage. What do you value most about these qualities?
JPW: That photography takes time out of life. We all know this. But to make photographs that have presence and meaning is the reason why I engage life through photography. In making the photographs, I make myself!
KJ: How long does it take you to produce an image with so many layers, components, and compositions within compositions?
JPW: I produce, on an average, about eight photographs a year. Often, I change my concepts from the initial drawing to the “life-dynamic” of engaging the subjects in the photograph. First and foremost, I want to see what the photographic image becomes between the time taken in by the camera and the image that I create as the final photographic emotion—the photographic print.
KJ: As a visual artist who orchestrates spaces containing so many unalike elements and conditions, as well as a visionary sense of beauty, your sensibilities also seem suited to directing performances and films. Could you imagine working on a theatrical or cinematic project?
JPW: No. I am first and last a still photographer. We are all made to celebrate different destinies. Making photographs is my destiny and purpose.
Text by Karl E. Johnson
© picture: Joel-Peter Witkin, Priest Pederast, 2009, 28" 1/2x26"
Courtesy: Baudoin Lebon, Paris