Monday, February 1, 2010

"An eye for the forbidden"


Joel-Peter Witkin

Is there a hidden beauty in everything? Can beauty be found in death as well as life; sadness and suffering as well as happiness? If so, how can we go about to find it in phenomena we would otherwise look away from?

The photographer and artist Joel-Peter Witkin answers these questions, and creates a world of true beauty in all those things. Instead of ignoring real life, he does not hesitate to let his work transgress traditional artistic boundaries in reflecting reality. In his photos we can see extreme conditions in life and death; dwarves, giants, pinheads, deformations, transsexuals, people without legs, arms or heads. Witikin creates a photographic world that shows the morbid, the perverse, the erotic and the religious.

Indeed, some people see him as a monster. "What they experience is either love or hate. People who hate what I make, hate me too…Those who understand what I do appreciate the determination, love, and courage it takes to find wonder and beauty in people who are considered by society to be damaged, unclean, dysfunctional or wretched". (Witkin 1990, p. 249)

But who is he really and how did everything begin? From where does he get the inspiration to create images which provoke the sort of feelings with the viewer that cannot be ignored? In every photo of Joel-Peter Witkin, there's something that won't let the viewer go.


Photography is a tool for capturing images, keeping a memory and telling a story. It freeze the moment and therefore lives for ever.

One of our greatest fine art photographers, Joel-Peter Witkin, born in New York 1939, takes photos of beauty. But he finds beauty in places that we normally look away from. He looks at the taboo and the grotesque; freaks, people born without arms, corpses, human with abnormal limbs and he puts the viewer in an uncomfortable position between life and death.

"We are born naked. We actually should live naked- not literally, but in terms of honest and openness"

Joel-Peter, World Art 1/96

He is often talking about God and his interest in spirituality and how that impacts the physical world in which we exist. He is talking about life and death in such a honest way with the unanswerable questions that fallows.

His pictures are so honest and real and capture the life of human existence like love, pain, hate and suffering in his own way.

Witkin claims that his vision and sensibility came after he witnessed a car accident on a Sunday morning, in front of his house when he was just six years old.

"It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. While walking down the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident involved three cars, all with families in them. Somehow, in the confusion, I was no longer holding my mother's hand. At the place where I stood at the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I bent down to touch the face, to speak to it -- but before I could touch it someone carried me away."

Joel-Peter Witkin, WITKIN, page 49

When growing up with a father who was orthodox Jew and a Christian mother, Witkin started to ask questions about life, but no one could tell the answer. He thought that only God could tell the truth- the maker of all the living and dead. He got fascinated about all the uncertainies things and wanted proof to the existence. He then started to take photography because he felt like it could supply that proof by doing so.

Witkin already got, at the age if sixteen, a serious interest in photography. He meet Edward Steichen at the Museum of modern Art, who accepted one of his pictures into the permanent exhibition.

But a few years later, in 1961, Witkin volunteered for Vietnam, where he documented accidents, but was released after an attempted suicide. He then took up studies again which ended up with a master in Fine Art Photography in 1986. In 1990, the French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, awarded him to the title of "Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres" for his work in photography.

Witkin always begins his process by drawing his idea on paper, arranging the scene before he gets into the studio and then once photographed, Witkin spends hours in the darkroom, scratching, bleaching or toning the print, and an actual "hands-in-the-chemicals" printing technique. This experimentation began after seeing a 19th century ambrotype woman and her ex-lover who had been scratched from the frame.

After careful darkroom manipulation with razor blades, pins, and other tools, he forces us to question our ability to understand. "A Witkin image can, like the best poetry, be read again and again and always remain a mystery"

"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."

Storck, Jeanne (2001),

His work maybe doesn't repel everyone. You either love it or hate it. Some people call him a pornographic freak with a morbid obsession and his work can be seen as an artistic revolt against both Jewish and Christian taboos. He also makes pointed references to history of paintings such as Botticelli, Goya, Velasquez and Seurat. Painters that deals with pain, beliefs and life just like Witkin himself.

The reason why I chose to write about Witkin, was because I see him as one of the greatest photographers and is my biggest inspiration source. His honesty and his way of creating pure art that contains question about life and death makes me want to do something that i feels important and to do it with such a beauty that only he can create.

I saw him for the first time ten years ago, at the Modern museum of Art in Stockholm, and have been awe eve since then. I don't know why I find him so fascinating. Even if his work could be seen as horrific and repulsive, I can only see it as a interesting way of creating divine photos of all those things we forget is beauty.

After this project and my research about Joel-Peter Witkin, I have of course learned more about the person himself, and have actually seen Witkin more as a human now, not just as the famous name of an artist. But the way I see his work is just the same. I see it with love, and I will always see it as beauty.

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