Joel-Peter Witkin has been called ‘part Hieronymous Bosch, part Chainsaw Massacre.’ His photographic tableaux, carefully arranged and painstakingly printed, offer us the chance to transcend subject matter, and enter what Witkin calls a world of ‘love and redemption’."


The Bone House.

Somewhere between depraved and divine, Joel-Peter Witkin has created a space that’s occupied by no other living photographer. His latest book, The Bone House, documents his progression from child photographer to where he stands alone today. Heady words, true, but deserved. Joel-Peter Witkin is a fearless image-maker.

The book itself is a beautiful piece of work. Green cloth in a gray slipcase, it’s the perfect vehicle to carry his disturbing, yet compelling images. Witkin is nothing if not a study in contrasts.

What distinguishes Joel-Peter Witkin from his contemporaries is a restlessness and desire that leads him to places others fear –the dark side where every glimmer of light is authentic. His milieu is nothing short of the greatest mystery that’s occupied humanity since its very beginnings, the ultimate question of life and death –questions that by their very nature are ultimately unanswerable, except in those personal, brief, and experiential moments when art bridges the gap between the senses and the intellect. No one occupies this ground better than Witkin.

Witkin makes art that can’t be dismissed or ignored. In fact, it achieves the status all art yearns for: no one, on seeing a Witkin image, can remain ambivalent. But this isn’t only a product of what Witkin chooses to photograph. No, it’s in how he takes this material and transcends its limitations. Using cadavers, hermaphrodites, hunchbacks, and others commonly known as freaks in general society, Witkin creates visual paradoxes that challenge our perception. Often criticized for sensationalism and the exploitation of his subjects, he actually lifts and redeems them –makes them central to his spiritual quest. Once photographed, they enter the eternal stream of art.

It’s impossible to conceptualize a Witkin image in a single glance and then dismiss it. Each image, after careful darkroom manipulation with razor blades, pins, and other implements, forces us to question our ability, viscerally, to understand. A Witkin image can, like the best poetry, be read again and again and always remain a mystery –one that feels just outside our grasp. A line from Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind, “and [we] looked and looked our infant sight away.”

Joel-Peter Witkin knows that, contrary to popular wisdom, we are not rational creatures, but subject to our senses. He uses sight, our most privileged sense, to unnerve and instruct us. Witkin’s images do not merely shock, they enlighten, if only by forcing us to embrace what we’d rather leave unexamined.

Woman Breastfeeding an Eel, New Mexico, 1979 is an image open to multiple interpretations. What could it mean? The cognitive dissonance one feels is disconcerting, but certain parts hold: the eel, the woman, her bared breasts, the conical bird beak she wears as a mask. But what is their relationship? Personal attempts at unraveling this mystery are exactly that –personal attempts, as all interpretations of Witkin must be. The more one tries with the intellect to understand, the more one realizes that only the senses can be trusted, but even here, sight, our most honored sense, is unable to grasp the image wholly. The elements are clear; their context is not. How can an eel suckle? How can a human being feel warmth for or be drawn to nurse an eel? How do sight, emotion, and intellect come together in such improbable objects? What does it all mean?

Much of discomfort arises because Witkin’s subjects (excluding his very earliest and very latest images) usually wear masks, eye-coverings, or false faces. In doing so, he denies us the signal indicator of personality –the countenance—only to replace it with another. What’s seen, what’s felt? Irreconcilable duality existing in a single entity. A constant pull of emotion against the intellect, and vice versa. One more reason to feel, almost, as if what we see can be understood. Take Portrait of Nan, New Mexico, 1984. In it we see a draped woman sitting on a draped chair facing us. Many elements of the image are interesting: the tiny skeleton off to the right, the way her hair has been twisted into semi-braids and attached to the wall behind her, the animal fetus she holds on her lap, but what jars is the T-shaped mask the photographer has imposed over her features. Our sight tells us one thing, our emotions another, and there’s no way they can be reconciled. No matter how often one looks, this phenomenon never changes, never sets us free. In fact, given our need for human reconciliation and integration in all that surrounds us, this delicious discomfort, abstract and concrete simultaneously, can be savored safely –a testament to one of art’s many functions.

Unlike many photographic artist, whose vision is concentrated solely in their photographic or darkroom efforts, Witkin uses titles worthy of literary aspirations, but this valuation of the literary is never for its own sake. Each title transcends mere labeling, a charge that might be laid at the feet of many otherwise fine photographers, and adds a dimension to images that already bear multiple shades of meaning. Lesson in the Kabala, New Mexico, 1981, Christ with Horn , New Mexico, 1976. Testicle Stretch With the Possibility of a Crushed Face, New Mexico, 1982. At the very least, they set a tone through which his images might be viewed.

If all creation can be said to be godlike, then the creation of these images assumes a spiritual quality most readily sensed in Witkin’s images that use cadavers and body parts. Witkin, in photographing the dead, brings their quickening essence once again to movement and expression, takes what we would ordinarily dismiss as the past, and enlivens it. In this way, what these cadavers achieve is nothing short of a new life, another chance to commune with the living, and even more striking, a chance for the living to commune with the dead.

The Kiss (Le Baiser), New Mexico, 1982, is an image of a single autopsied head that’s been sliced in half down the middle, and posed as two separate beings locked in a kiss. There is no mask. Witkin freely allows the dead what expression their countenance assumes. How strange, and yet how comforting. A kiss, being inherently pleasant and associated with joy, disarms the viewer, even as the intellect denies the possibility that this head can feel anything. That each half of the head is achieving what it had in life, wholeness, if only metaphorically, doesn’t diminish the sense that it is so. This fact renders it no less powerful. Of course, there are many other levels of potential meaning, but the most significant event of the image is in how the dead, in the face of reason, can be said to breathe, to communicate.

Considering how Witkin’s images resist categorization, perhaps the one single truth that can be said of all of them, is this: in every Witkin image there’s something that won’t let a viewer go, something that won’t allow us to dismiss what we see or to completely accept it. We leave a Witkin image with the feeling that significance has been glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, although the eye has been fully engaged in bold frontal sight These images are nothing short of an attempt at saying the unsayable, a task Thomas De Quincey once called “the burden of the incommunicable.” In the company of Goya, Bosch, Blake, and the other great artist of the ineffable, Witkin, in The Bone House, has created an inexhaustible and essential book.

Charles Mann

Charles Mann, current editorial assistant of The Photo Review, is a former poet laureate of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He has recently finishes a cycle of poems based on Witkin’s photographs.”

Close Window