Joel Peter Witkin

We are fortunate that Joel-Peter Witkin became a photographer. Given the bizarre events of his life, if he were not to have found an outlet through his art, the world might be a more dangerous place. His images are grotesque and disturbing. Utterly without joy, they are grim reminders that we are little more than flesh.
Born 1939, Witkin’s childhood was filled with the tension of the divorcing of his Jewish father and Catholic mother. His later analogies between glass and photography, seemingly a throwback to 19th century practices, may come from a traumatic event while smashing glass for his father’s glazier business when he received a shard of glass to the eye. Trauma appears to escalate in Witkin’s life as, at the age of six, he witnesses a fatal car crash where the decapitated head of a young woman literally rolled to his feet. His near mythic young life continues in his teen years with his first sexual encounter being with a hermaphrodite.
In 1969 Witkin was enlisted into the Vietnam war where he was assigned to photograph the dead. Returning home in the early 1970s he trained as a “primal therapist”, a field in which he was supposed to assist clients to relive their own births. At university he studied poetry, sculpture and lithography. Photography was where all of the elements of his background could come into focus.
The subjects of his work are bodies; still, silent, and sometimes even dead. He is very meticulous in his process, carefully devising his compositions and the themes behind them before embarking on the Herculean task of finding a corpse or a misshapen individual who fits the role. He has made arrangements with the morgue in Mexico City to inspect and photograph corpses of unknown people delivered there. He arranges them until they transcend the mere flesh.
These photographs evoke 19th century scientific documentation, classical painting, and surrealism. The viewer is faced with tableaus images which are difficult to accept as real but so realistic that they are impossible deny. This contradiction of beauty and ugliness is difficult to reconcile; a paradox which evokes surrealism.
To give texture, depth, mystery, and to further degrade the flesh of the images, Wilkin mars the emulsion and manipulates the image in printing. This further establishes the images as aged, belonging more to the 19th century.
When we look at them, we have the voyeuristic sensation of being allowed to stare at the forbidden. Like the freak show carnival (more 19th century iconography), we are frightened yet safe, staring from a safe distance. Social boundaries dissolve and we can study the pain and the humiliation and the morbid beauty of these updates to Hieronymus Bosch scenes.
(Gerald Saul)