Joel-Peter Witkin: Peering Over the Abyss : Sexual deviants, cadavers, circus freaks populate photographer’s world

Joel-Peter Witkin’s volatile photographs are considered to be the very cutting edge of the art form by some--and dismissed as flagrant pornography by others.

Diving head first into deeply rooted fears that contemporary artists like Ed Kienholz and David Lynch only hint at, Witkin taps into the same current of demonic power that churned through Bosch and Goya.

“Most people who look at my work assume I’m a terrible, dark person, and there is a part of me that’s fascinated by forms of death and horror. But I don’t see evil in myself. I see confusion and darkness,” says Witkin.

Primarily a photographer of the human form, Witkin translates our blackest imaginings into physical form in sinister images that sweep the viewer into a nightmarish world of sexual deviance, cadavers and circus freaks. Perceiving grotesqueries as doorways to the divine, Witkin preys on our queasy fascination with horrors of the flesh with a parade of unfortunates who were cheated by nature,


For a photograph called “The Kiss” (one of his most acclaimed works), Witkin sliced a severed human head down the center and positioned the two halves so they appear to be kissing. In “Un Santo Oscuro” a victim of prenatally administered thalidomide posed as a religious martyr. In an attempt to photograph what he describes as “real feeling in real time,” he belted, hooded and nailed a claustrophobic man to a wall.

Favored models include transsexuals, grossly obese women and dwarfs. An open casting call for models included in a book of Witkin’s work published last year by Twelve Trees Press listed some of the exotic types he was interested in photographing. Among them; people with additional limbs, pinheads, hairless anorexics, and people with large skin lesions willing to pose in evening gowns.

More That Shock

Exploitative and sensationalistic as it sounds, Witkin sees his work as profoundly spiritual and insists that “my work is all about human dignity, caring and compassion.” Combining religious iconography and art historical references with images of deviant sexuality and medical curiosities, his work does resonate on levels beyond its shocking surface, and forces us to examine barbed questions--central among them being the dichotomy of spirit and flesh.

“People say Joel’s work is shocking, but to shock is a very easy thing to do in photography,” says veteran photographer Ralph Gibson. “His work is much more than merely shocking, and his introspective qualities are astonishing; with all the shock we feel in seeing his work, we all seem to recognize what we see, which inclines me to suspect that the things in his work are inherent in us all.”

Steeped in theology and philosophy, Witkin has been heavily influenced by Levi’s “The Aquarian Gospel,” the mystical philosopher Rudolf Steiner and the ideas of Joseph Campbell. A believer in karma and reincarnation who claims to have had many out of body experiences, Witkin considers the Shroud of Turin to be the most important object on earth, and believes he was present at the Crucifixion in a previous life--that he was, in fact, the centurion Longinus who pierced Christ’s side with a spear after he’d been crucified. (Witkin prefers to be photographed wearing a mask embellished with a crucifix.)

“I see my life and work as a prayer, and perceive everything in reference to the life of Christ,” says the artist in explaining his creative impulse. “There’s not an hour that goes by that I don’t think about the sparks emanating from the godhead and that mysterious connection between ourselves, Christ and eternity.

“I want to live in an age which sees similar beauty in a flower and in the severed limb of a human being,” he says in explaining the rationale behind his work. As to why the physically deformed are central to his art, he comments: “I’ve always been attracted to things that are looked on as ugly or taboo. I don’t want to live feeling that I can’t communicate with someone, because there’s a form of beauty in everything. I’ve been thinking about St. Francis, who had this terrible fear of lepers. One morning he was walking down the road and saw the most grotesque leper and he knew that to get beyond the demise of his own flesh, he had to kiss that leper. And at the instant St. Francis kissed him, the leper turned into Christ.”

A Low Profile

Meeting Witkin at his studio in Albuquerque, one is both surprised and confused. An unflaggingly cheerful man of great warmth and humor, Witkin is the polar opposite of his work. An energetic dynamo who works in 18-hour stretches and sleeps an average of three hours a night, he has the bawdy sense of humor--and the delivery--of a borscht belt comedian.

Though Albuquerque is big on art, Witkin’s international reputation has failed to make him a favored local son and he keeps a low profile hereabouts. “This is a very Republican state and every time I’ve shown here it’s been bad for me,” he notes.

Witkin works in a small studio--formerly a butcher shop--and lives in a rambling Southwestern style house situated on an 11-acre lot on the outskirts of town. He shares the house with his wife of 10 years, Cynthia, a tattoo artist; a 10-year-old son, and a friend named Barbara, who works as a medical researcher. Their comfortably cluttered house is filled with books, cut flowers, beautiful fabrics, religious art and Southwestern kitsch.

Also on the premises are four horses, four dogs, two birds, a few cats, fruit trees and a beautifully overgrown garden. Witkin’s serene home environment is distinctly at odds with the dark vision he’s unleashed on the world.

In talking with Witkin, however, the mystery of what ignited and nurtures his aesthetic begins to unravel; his life has been as surreal as his art. Born in Brooklyn in 1939, one of twin boys born to an Italian mother and a Russian father, he was irrevocably changed by an incident that occurred when he was 6.

“My mother, brother and I were on our way to church and there was a terrible car accident in front of the house,” he recalls during an intense conversation that took place as we sat on two folding chairs in the center of his studio. “I was standing on the curb and from one of the cars I saw something like a little ball rolling towards me. It stopped where I was standing and it was the head of a little girl.

“I wasn’t traumatized by this incident,” he quickly adds. “It was wonderful because in an instant my life was changed. I experienced a removal of life, and somehow I sensed that that little girl was going to come back in another form. Maybe my photographs are part of my search for answers about her.”

Witkin’s mother, a devout Catholic, divorced his father, an Orthodox Jew, when Witkin was 3 because she wanted to raise her children as Catholics. As Witkin recalls, “Catholicism was very much a part of my upbringing and though I loved it as a child, I think it scarred my existence. I can remember looking at my hands when I was small and thinking that every line on my hands and body, the veins and so forth, were whip marks.”

Witkin’s first photographic experience came when he was 17 and had an opportunity to photograph a rabbi who claimed to have seen God. Expecting a mystical experience, he was disappointed.

“I learned then that what I wanted from photography was the possibility of seeing something I couldn’t see any other way,” he recalls.

Towards that end, Witkin began photographing the freaks at Coney Island, many of whom he befriended. He, in fact, had his first sexual encounter at the age of 17 with a hermaphrodite who modeled for him.

Murderous Dreams

Around the time Witkin was photographing the freaks, his father died of shock after being beaten and robbed at Coney Island.

“His death didn’t affect me at all,” says Witkin, who also claims to feel no affinity whatsoever for his twin brother, New York painter Jerome Witkin.

After the Coney Island freaks left town, Witkin began fabricating environments that served as backdrops for strange events which he staged and photographed. In 1961 he was accepted as a sculpture major at Cooper Union College in New York, and shortly thereafter was drafted.

“I regret being in the Army,” he says. “After three years in a specific kind of confinement of consciousness, you become part of something whose basic intent is to destroy. I was on red alert in Texas for the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs, and I began dreaming about murdering people.

“Then, inspired by Robert Capa, I volunteered for Vietnam, but I never wound up going because I tried to commit suicide. I figured, here I am preparing to sacrifice my life and for what? For the mistakes of others. Also, in the Army my job had been to photograph Army suicides and accidental deaths and that was very depressing.”

After the Army he went through a period of mysticism, studying yoga for six years and spending several months in India in 1974.

“I can’t tell you how wonderful India was--I belonged there,” he enthuses. “I visited Mother Teresa’s hospice in Calcutta and worked as a volunteer in a leprosarium. A leper died in my arms, which was a magnificent experience--that was as close as I’ll ever come to giving birth. I then contracted pneumonia and was left to die by the woman who’d taken me to India. When I got back to America, a lot of things happened.

“First, I considered entering the priesthood. I wanted to help people, but I finally decided that I could better help people through aesthetics. After that I got heavily involved in primal therapy and wanted to become a primal therapist. I once spent three days tied to a woman.”

Throughout this period of exploration, Witkin continued to work as an artist and in 1975 he was accepted to graduate school in New Mexico. Prior to leaving New York, he created a body of work that explored his ambivalent feelings towards God and women. As he openly admits in his master’s thesis (a fascinating document written in 1976 that is a combination manifesto and confession), he would stalk female models on the streets of New York, then photograph and seduce them. He placed them in coffins, masked and bound them, and claimed to be “jealous of the power women have to give birth.

“The masochism in my work represents the abuse and pain I felt originated with women--the source of all life. The sadism was a way of repaying woman for my confused existence.”

While those comments date back to 1976, there are those who continue to find Witkin’s work blatantly misogynist. Witkin, however, insists that “there is no misogyny in my work. In fact, I’m firmly convinced that being a man is physically and psychically secondary to being a woman.”

Whereas a few people take issue with Witkin’s portrayal of women, many more object to his depiction of the handicapped. Though he claims he employs the physically different as metaphors for spiritual change, Pamela Mower-Conner, an L.A. painter whose work also explores spiritual transformation, insists that “Witkin is doing nothing to help the handicapped and is deluding himself that his work has spiritual content. Spiritually powerful art illuminates unexplained phenomena and in no way do I see his photographs doing that.”

“I feel a deep bond with people who are physically different,” counters Witkin, who edited a book titled “Masterpieces of Medical Photography” that was published last year. “They’re unformed and I’m unformed. Another reason people who deviate from the norm are a better vehicle for me is because I’m attempting to experience understanding and compassion.”

Central to Witkin’s work is a quest for the exotic models that are crucial to his art.

“I have people who keep an eye out for things I might want to photograph,” he says. “For instance, I recently went to this place on the West Coast--I can’t name the location--where a man had arranged to take me into a room where there were 37 severed heads on a table. I was invited to see them in case I wanted to photograph them but they were boring. There was no spirit in them.”

Witkin’s search for models also takes him into the dark netherworld of sexual deviance--a scene he greets with the same fearlessness that seems to color every aspect of his life.

“I travel a lot, usually alone, and often hang out in bars where the sleaze factor is enormous, but I guess I live with a sense of trust that creates a kind of white magic that’s always protected me.”

While Witkin’s methods and intentions are hotly debated, few question his technical expertise. A master craftsman, Witkin has developed a complex method of printing that involves scratching the negative, and the application of tissue overlays and chemical sprays during enlarging. This technique imbues his images with the magical resonance of artifacts from a previous century.

Beginning with a simple sketch and working without an assistant, he creates an average of one image per month, and builds or obtains any props he might need himself. He spends countless hours setting up a shot, an average of four hours developing a print, prints in editions of 15, and throws out 60% of his work.

“I’m a solitary person and I spend most of my time alone, working and listening to talk radio and classical music,” he comments. “I’ve never had a friend,” he laughs. “I swear!”

Pieces Sell for Up to $8,000

Though Witkin’s images sell for from $1,800 to $8,000 each, he claims to live “from print to mouth,” and up until 1983 supported his family and his art by working as a headwaiter in a local restaurant.

The art world’s verdict on Witkin isn’t in yet, and people choose their words with care when discussing his work. Art hipsters who pride themselves on supporting difficult art choke on the words “this is where I draw the line,” but many art liberals find it hard to endorse his work.

“I like to think of myself as a broad-minded curator, but at this point I wouldn’t show the work,” says Charles Desmarais, former director of the California Museum of Photography in Riverside and current director of the Laguna Art Museum. “The questions it raises are so large and so difficult that I don’t think it’s fair to subject women, the handicapped and the aged to such tough questions.”

Angelenos will get a chance to draw their own conclusions about Witkin next July when the Fahey-Klein Gallery presents his first show in Southern California.

While Witkin accepts his role as the bad boy of photography with reluctance, he does seem to enjoy telling macabre stories. After listening to him recount a particularly grisly episode that occurred in connection with his work, the question arises; how far would he go in pursuit of an image?

“Not one cell of my body has ever done anything injurious to any form, living or dead,” he emphatically concludes. “I feel a great union with the people I photograph because they’re part of something I want to know; I need to understand their condition in life. Most of these people see my work as the best visualization of themselves possible, and all have their own reasons for wanting to be photographed.

“And as to why I choose to do what I do, I’ve always been drawn to the very things that confuse me most. I have no problem accepting the mystery of good and evil.”