Joel-Peter Witkin

He’s an investigator of the human condition, which is to say an investigator of life and death. Grew up in Brooklyn, volunteered for Vietnam, but did not go overseas. Creates elaborate sets for his work (he has a background in sculpture) and finds beauty in death and the grotesque and the darkly sensual. His work is strange and difficult and also very much rooted in Western religion, myth and art history. Very much in dialogue with Dutch and Spanish masters: Hieronymus Bosch, Goya, Velasquez, Picasso. Even though he works for weeks to build tableaux, source objects, subjects, etc., he says the decisive moment is rarely when he takes the picture but more often when he has a negative he can manipulate with chemistry, scratching, paint, water, etc. The bizarre thing about his photographs is that they are very much in conversation with the Western art history canon, which makes them seem civilized and cultured and somehow tamed even while the subjects and objects depicted are so raw and difficult to look at. Somehow their beauty and artful arrangement tempers the shock value. He also seems to be there with the subjects, rather than looking at them and objectifying them. This makes them easier to look at than, say, the work of Roger Ballen. This photograph references one of my favourite Velasquez paintings, Las Meninas. I admire how much is going on in the photograph – you can stare at it for hours – and yet it somehow does not feel busy in any way. There is a strange spareness to it; each element plays an important part in the picture. Nothing is extraneous. It’s also interesting the way your eye moves around the painting before it finally dawns on you: the little princess has no legs.

JoelPeter-Witkin_WITJP10668

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