THE Magazine: Exclusive Interview with Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin

"Witkin is considered to be one of the most controversial photographic artists of our time"

Date February 21, 2012 at 2:50 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Art Markets & Galleries Community

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In a phone call to THE magazine from Santa Fe’s Andrew Smith Gallery in the fall of 2011, owner Andrew Smith left a message saying, “You must come to the gallery to see Joel-Peter Witkin’s new work. It is quite a departure from his earlier work.”

Witkin is considered to be one of the most controversial photographic artists of our time. His early work portrays a world peopled with transsexuals, corpses and severed heads on plates—with references to classical paintings and religious tableaux. Witkin has been labeled a genius, has been compared to Goya, and some have even called him the Hieronymus Bosch of photography. However, Witkin’s new work is different.

Witkin says, “It is romantic, it’s genteel, it’s tender, and  it’s more compassionate.” Artists rarely move away from a style that’s been commercially successful, so of course we were intrigued. Our curiosity was rewarded with this exclusive interview, which took place in Witkin’s studio in Albuquerque’s South Valley.

THE magazine: You have several shows and books about to happen. Talk about these shows—when and where they’re taking place and what’s going on with the books.

Joel-Peter Witkin: Okay. The shows are both in Paris. The first is a retrospective, at the Bibliothèque Nationale—the national library of France and one of the great museums of the world. It’s going to open on March 26, and consists of 95 of my works, augmented by about 40 of what they call estampes. 

TM: Estampe?

J-PW: An estampe is an engraving, or etching, from the Renaissance clear through to Picasso.

GC: It’s meant to show influences?

J-PW: Well, you could say influences, but I would call it historical parallels.

TM: Are you involved with the installation of the work?

J-PW: Never; that’s the job of the curator, who should know the work, who knows the space, and who knows good design and lighting.

TM: Who is the curator of this show?

J-PW: Her name is Anne Biroleau, and she’s the chief curator of photography at the Bibliothèque. The last big show there was with Richard Prince. The Bibliothèque does wonderful shows, and there will be a book published—as a book/catalogue. The other show in Paris is the next night, March 27, at the Galerie Baudoin Lebon, which has represented my work for over 25 years. It’s all new work, and that’s what I’m killing myself over now.

TM: Will people see the new work at the Bibliothèque show?

J-PW: Some of the new work, but mostly it is a retrospective.

TM: And you’ll be in Paris for a couple of weeks in March?

J-PW: Yes, I’ll go there for interviews first, and then the hang. And I plan to photograph an amazing thing I saw at the Paris flea market last year. It was a fetus, but it was a weeping fetus. Someone in the 19th century had taken a fetus and positioned it so that it’s crying into a small towel. I’m making a still life of that, with musical instruments. It will be very beautiful.

TM: Do you often find your props at flea markets?

J-PW: I always go to flea markets because I always get lucky. And yes, I find some props. In Budapest, I actually found a painting that was made in a concentration camp, and I was going to buy it, but it was just too big. But I did buy a painting on glass, which is in my studio. It’s painted on the reverse from the inside, and it shows a German occupier putting flowers in front of a crucifix in the small town. It’s a horrible, horrible thing because it’s from that era. It’s the only thing that I have that I ever want from that era, because it shows the horrible power of one country occupying another country— infiltrating and taking over the culture. I have the painting as an historical example. So yes, I always find things—flea markets are indicative of the past and the present. Even when I was in Bogotá, I’d go to the flea market and pick up crazy things there for my photographs, like chains and strange stuff like old vases.

TM: Considering the work you’ve done for the last 40 years or so, the new work seems to be a major departure. Talk about the new work and how different it is from the other work, and what elements are in it that would surprise people.

J-PW: I think the new work is romantic, I think it’s genteel, I think it’s tender, and it’s more compassionate, because I’ve grown. I’m seventy-two now and I’m facing the big “D,” amd I don’t mean Dallas. But I can say that the older work is more visually combative, where I basically photographed very, very strong subject matter. But both the new work and the old work are part of my life, because I think that—not life as such—but that the world is irrational. And since I’m living in that world, through this life that I’m living I have to basically confront the irrationality, the strangeness and the conflicting aspects of being in that world.

TM: Do you find that when you finish an image you can say, ‘Okay this is perfect, it’s great?’ A lot of artists—whether they make fine art or commercial art—are always dissatisfied with what they’ve done. What about you?

J-PW: Of course I am dissatisfied. That’s a natural inclination. That’s why I think people who are in the arts have ups and downs. That’s a natural aspect of their personality because they get encouraged, and then they become attached, and then they have to become encouraged again. That’s not to say that it’s abnormal; I think it’s very normal as far as what discovery is about. But in my case, it’s not a question of moving on. I think if a person has dedicated his life to something, as I have, then he’s deadly serious about what he’s doing and what it means, and then it’s a natural evolution to move on to different subject matter, because there are different interests involved.

TM: Right. What three pieces you have done over the last 40 years would define you?

J-PW: The first one would be "The Kiss," which I did in 1982. It’s a head cut in half, and both sides of that half are kissing each other—a very powerful metaphor for life and maybe aspects of what personality is—or self-love. Second would be a photograph called "A Day in the Country" that I made in Poland in 1998. It’s of a horse that came from a slaughterhouse, basically held up by a crane, and there’s a masked nude woman below the horse.

TM: That makes me think of the Fellini film "8½." You know, the crane, the statue of Christ in the air.

J-PW: Yes, the model is Polish, and she took us to a small town. Anyway, she’s holding a penis that I made that’s attached to the horse. She’s holding it, and she’s looking at the camera, and basically it’s about a very dire situation, about what love is—confused love. It also reflects on our lives at all times as far as what constitutes purpose and life and love. And the third one that comes to mind is "The Reader"—a beautiful woman who tells her dreams and her thoughts into a computer so that they can be used to animate machines. And so this beautiful woman (I took this shot in Paris last year) has a snake that’s crawling around her body, but she’s in an elegant chair. She’s wearing a hat of books, there’s a dog, too, and a pheasant in this environment. It’s a beautiful photograph because it’s very engaging and mysterious, and it doesn’t have the darker aspect of my earlier work. But in art I think that any subject matter is totally plausible; it just depends on the depth and consciousness of the artist who created the work. The subject matter is basically the vehicle, as the art form is. But it’s the consciousness of the artist that makes any medium alive and makes it an event rather than a depiction.

TM: Talk about the image that is on the cover of this issue.

J-PW: It’s called "Woman with Small Breasts." The model is an Israeli woman who works in the gallery that represents me. She herself is a photographer, now teaching in Tel Aviv in a university, but I photographed her in Paris. Her profile is so beautiful, and she has these beautiful little breasts, and I wanted to do kind of a close-up, which I normally don’t do too often, but I wanted to raise the stakes. I designed the hat she’s wearing with a horn, fish, and flowers and all kinds of stuff to create a kind of distraction from her beauty. The title is very important, but in this case it’s not about her breasts, it’s about her beauty.

TM: Many people do the work and they show it to somebody—an editor, their wife, partner, whoever. Usually there’s somebody they look to for some approval or recognition of what they are trying to do. Is there a person in your life—you don’t have to tell me who it is—but is there a person who might say to you, ‘Yeah, you got it,’ or ‘Hey, Joel-Peter, give me a break.’

J-PW: Yeah, myself.

TM: No one else outside of you? And are you your best critic?

J-PW: Well, I don’t know if I’m my best critic. It comes out of me, so me should look at it. [Laughs]

TM: Do you have the ability to look at the work you’ve done and see it new, as if you have never seen it before?

J-PW: Well, that’s my objective. I mean, it comes through me as a discovery, as self-discovery, and when it happens that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen all the time, but I think I bat about 800. And, usually, it’s as I’m making the print, because in the process of making my photographs the decisive moment is not what’s in the camera, it’s what’s on the paper. For me, it’s not just a question of photographing something and it’s done; I have to print them—I’m a printmaker. The first phase is getting the negative—the vehicle for the print—and then the final stage is to make the print. I make the print myself, and that’s a lost art in photography. If you talk about painting, people would say you can’t have another person paint your painting for you because you’re a painter. I think that’s true for photography too, although there are a lot of photographers that are very good image-makers but not good printers. But in my case, I am a good printer—and I must be the printmaker of my work, because in the process of making the print I’m actually changing the concept around. I’m changing the formality of the piece, I’m changing its meaning, and I have to be there to do it.

TM: Prints can be too hard, too soft, too flat, and can have too much contrast, etc. Do you make more than one print? Do you still work on the negative as you did with the earlier work, or do you now work directly on the print?

J-PW: Both. There are times that are just the reverse of that; there are some times when it’s just a straight print; I don’t do anything. That doesn’t happen often. I study the contact prints, which takes about half a day. I don’t shoot that much so there’s not that much to look at. But when I’m photographing people, it’s very important that I look very precisely because of the gesture. And then I decide how I’m going to—in a very primordial way—change the look of the negative to basically mystify it and to make it my own. It’s kind of like drawing inside of the photographic information. I’ve been printing for almost sixty years now, and I must say I’m probably one of the best printers around.

TM: What enlargers do you print with? A Bessler, Omega, or what?

J-PW: I print with deVeres; it’s a English company that went out of business. Every time before I start printing a particular negative, I sit in the darkroom and I thank all the equipment as my colleagues and my partners, because for me everything is alive—the paper is alive, the developer is alive. It’s something that’s not mechanical, per se.

TM: And you’re mixing your own chemicals?

J-PW: Right. My wife and I even make our own toners.

GC: I’m curious because I used to be a printer myself. Do you ever work with things like warm developer and errocyanide, things like this?

J-PW: Oh yes, the whole gamut. Absolutely.

TM: You once said, “Sometimes I say to myself that the work is smarter than I am.” Could you talk about that for a moment?

J-PW: Yeah, I think that’s true for everybody. Or it should be, [laughs] because trying to make a discovery represents a growth and direction. Sometimes we trip, sometimes we walk faster and sometimes we make a leap. That said, sometimes what happens in the process of turning ourselves inside out to manifest a personal vision, we grow. And then when we reach that particular place—let’s say, through an image—then it’s time to consider other things. But basically when a person is growing as a visual artist, he’s growing in all sensibilities, including the spirit.

TM: The use of words in the new work. I haven’t seen every picture you’ve ever done, but I’ve never seen words in the older work. How come words now?

J-PW: Well, it started with my photographing a retablo. I love retablos, which are basically visualized prayers. In the history of art there has been an explanation below the image of what it was. But very often in photography, even though there’s a name for the image or a title, we’re left to second guess what’s going on. What I want to do with the use of words in the photographs is not to clarify, but to augment the visual information with the literature. I generally write my own inscriptions, but that doesn’t apply to every work. Some works get it and some works don’t. It all depends.

TM: You do editions of your photographs, right?

J-PW: Yes, I do editions.

GC: My question about editions is, take "Moonrise over Hernandez," the famous picture by Ansel Adams. It was not a straight shot and he did a lot of work on that print in the darkroom—using ferrocyanide and such. And a copy negative was made of the print. How do you create your editions? Is each print in the edition made by you, or are they made making a copy negative?

J-PW: Every print I make is from the original negative.

TM: Buyers and collectors want to know that.

J-PW: Right. And it’s very, very important. I would never print from a copy negative because that’s a cop-out.

TM: Cheating?

J-PW: It could be.

TM: Well, using a copy negative to make prints takes away the hand of the artist, for sure.

J-PW: Right. And the thing is that when I sign my name on the print, it’s me, and no one’s making it quite that way. And no one can. The whole premise of being a creator is to make something never seen quite like that before.

TM: Your thoughts on pornography?

J-PW: Pornography is the lowest level of emotion that anyone can fall down into. If cancer could shit, it would be pornography.

TM: [Laughs] Okay, shit and blood. Well, let me ask you this: How do you know this? Have you ever looked at any pornography?

J-PW: Well, of course I’ve looked at pornography. I think it’s a horrible abuse of the person’s spirit, the body, and the purpose of life. It’s terrible.

TM: It’s definitely exploitation. Okay, what image-makers are you impressed by? What two or three people are you able to say, ‘Gee, they are impressed by what I do, they like what I do?’

J-PW: I think that’s a very good question. One of three people would have to be Jesus Christ, because I’m going to see him when I die anyway.

TM: Say hi from me.

J-PW: Yes, I shall, I shall.

TM: You better! [Laughs]

J-PW: The second person would probably be Henri Cartier-Bresson. And the third would be Max Beckmann. I’ve always loved his work. I would get clarity from different viewpoints. The first being from an infinite viewpoint, and then the other two from viewpoints of aesthetic consciousness that I think are far beyond my own. That would be a very wonderful experience.

TM: Okay, just a few more questions. In the song "Idiot Wind," which Dylan wrote, there are a couple lines: “I’ve been double crossed too much, in times I think I’ve lost my mind, lady killers blow dice on me, behind my back while imitators steal me blind.” Are there a lot of Joel-Peter Witkin copycats out there, and what do you think of them?

J-PW: Well, I think there are. I’ve seen a bunch, and I’m constantly having things sent to me in the mail.

TM: Do you find it to be pathetic?

J-PW: No, it’s not pathetic. But what’s pathetic is that sometimes I’ll give lectures at different universities, and see that the instructors actually have their students do work of different photographers. I couldn’t disagree with this approach more. It’s so horrible. The fact is that you want to nourish growth; you just don’t want to supplant it. And by the way, that is a form of pornography too.

TM: Okay, last thing. The opera Tosca by Puccini has an aria, “Vissi d’Arte.” It translates to, “I have lived for art.” Would you say this applies to you?

J-PW: Oh yes. Actually, there are two things in my life that I’m perfectly aware of and that I strive to clarify. The two things that drive me are my religious faith—I’m a Christian—and the second thing is that I make the work for the good of man and for the glory of God—that’s where I’m coming from. The last thing Oscar Wilde said is, “Either me or this wallpaper has to go.” In my case, I’ll be satisfied when I die, or when I make that transition into eternity while I’m printing, or while I’m making my work in the darkroom—because what I do in my work is to bring light to the darkness. And that’s why some of the subject matter that I’ve always used is about that kind of clarity. I think that in a very strange way—in a very ultra-personal way—the base of my work is to make life better; for people to view what I’ve encountered and present it as an encounter in life.

TM: Elaborate please.

J-PW: It is very much like the movie "Melancholia"—a film about love, family, and the apocalypse—which is in two parts. The first part of the film is about why life doesn’t work. And the second part is about the end of time. And that’s what I want to bring to the work itself, because I really believe that all of us are living in a world where our history is horrible. And it’s getting more and more horrible—we don’t know how to live and we never will. So the few aspects of better living and the purpose of love in living is what I want to bring to people’s attention through the themes I work with. I know that sounds strange. I know that some people see me as a monster, and other people see me as a kind of a person who believes in what he does. And I do believe in what I do. However, we’re living in a time where everyone has their own baggage, and there’s a kind of relativity that is scary in the sense that if people believe in, say, relativism, then they can believe that the scribbling of a monkey is equal to the writing of Shakespeare. That’s not the case, because morality dictates that we have criteria, and what I try to do in my work is to present criteria of conscience and morality. And that’s what I want to leave behind—that’s my message.

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