Joel-Peter Witkin in Colombia

Bogota-based Black Star photographer Richard Emblin had the opportunity to interview Joel-Peter Witkin during the photography legend’s recent visit to Colombia. Here is his story.

For much of August, Joel-Peter Witkin moved through Bogotá without the custody of bodyguards and the media hype usually associated with an artist whose work has reached the celebrity stratosphere. As we meet in the Parque 93, Joel puts a condition on our meeting and the chance to talk photography: that I treat him to breakfast with “real juice.”

As a plate of poached eggs and freshly squeezed papaya arrives at our table, Witkin barely has a moment to sample his plate. The incessant ringing of a borrowed cellphone breaks the morning pleasantries, as this legendary photographer, trying to remain calm, reaches for a better signal, leaning over the metal railings which separate the interior of the restaurant from the sidewalk.

Emphatically explaining to his bank manager that it has been impossible for him to withdraw funds with his credit card (as there seems to have been a mix-up with his PIN number) and the fact that he is in a part of the world called “Colombia,” Joel has a technological fight on his hands, and for almost an hour I am in the presence of greatness and financial madness. “This is a form of combat,” remarks the photographer after he finally gets his message through to Albuquerque. “Life combat.”

A Walking Contradiction

Born in Brooklyn in 1939, to a Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother, Joel-Peter Witkin is a walking contradiction. At home in the finest galleries of Europe or on his desert ranch in New Mexico, he looms among the greats of modern photography. As a staunch “traditionalist” in his modus operandi, he has embraced Catholicism and a Jewish work ethic. While critics have employed many adjectives to describe his visual undertakings from “dark” to “morbid,” he is anything but; a man whose smile spans the Williamsburg bridge, can light up a conversation in seconds and whose eyes flicker like fully-charged strobes, whenever a joke is made.

witkin city paper

Although for the unaccustomed eye, his work may seem humorless, there is a raw, self-effacing bashfulness to this diminutive man, whose larger-than-life tableaux recall the works of Gericault and Courbet. Far from the Seine, Witkin draws a parallel between Paris and Bogotá: cities which manage to “bring out his deepest self.” Reciting from a black leather-bound journal, Witkin hides nothing. Like his black and white photographs, steeped in symbolism and sexual overture, he feels as comfortable around his own words as with the dwarfs, prostitutes and preoperative transsexuals he casts in his work. “I woke up in this reality to make beautiful things. After almost 70 years of life, I am living in an innocent wonder.”

With a career that encompasses half a century, Witkin is not a “prolific” photographer. During his third and most recent visit to Bogotá, he managed to produce seven shots in four weeks, the equivalent to the amount he usually produces in a year. “I don’t work in the world. All my work has been about constructing an image and not finding it in nature and the city.”

Sacred and Profane

Using painted backdrops in studio-like environments and basing his pictures on his own sketches, Witkin came to Bogotá because he found people to be “helpful” and open to his creative stamina. Working out the “emotion” beforehand, on a blank page, Witkin is as much of a visual craftsman as he is an investigator of art and history. By scratching his negatives and toning prints, he gives his work a 19th century look.

One of his most celebrated photographs strikes at the heart of a Spanish classic, Velazquez’s “Las Meninas.” In the frame, a legless girl in a cagelike hoop skirt holds the rope of a sleeping dog. In his rendition of the “Birth of Venus”, Botticelli’s evocative goddess is replaced by a hermaphrodite. Inspired by the post-war Italian art movement Arte Povera (Poor Art), Witkin’s photographs are charged with icons and relics he finds in his many travels. His sets become an artistic battlefield between the “sacred” of the Renaissance and the profane of the modern.

Although his work has been interpreted by some as “pornographic” as a result of its voyeuristic allure, for Witkin, an artist whose work has been exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum, hangs in the Boudoin Lebon gallery in Paris and has 22 books to his name, the message is the opposite. “Pornography excites the viewer into a lower reality,” he believes. “It’s a ‘turn-on’ that has no meaning. It keeps people emotionally stupid.”

“I Am Very Happy”

Trained as a photographic technician by the U.S. Army at the height of the Vietnam War, Witkin considers himself fortunate that his three-year stint never resulted in a tour of duty. At age 21, under Kennedy and McNamara, he volunteered for the army, instead of facing the draft. “I volunteered because I felt I could create a masterpriece of photography,” says Joel, chuckling at his youthful ambition. “I’ve always been a romantic. There’s the paradox. Somehow people think I am some sort of a dark person. I am not. I am very happy.”

The darkness that Witkin alludes to stems from a body of work which deals with disturbing and dismembered still life: severed heads on plates, amputated limbs, corpses in classical poses and subjects from the frontlines of the “bizarre”. Like the undercurrents of Arte Povera, Witkin questions the ethical compass of contemporary society: “The dark times are those we are living in now.”

While picking up the “good energy” of Bogotá, Witkin has found a city that is culturally alive and allows him to work with props and models he meets through friends. “I really feel that I can come up with ideas that can be expressed here.” On his last visit to Colombia in 2008 and inspired by a series of high school portraits he saw during a photography convention in Charlottesville, Virginia, Witkin came up with “Prom Foto Bogotá”: here a reclining transsexual evokes a prophecy of the “dark times” of the moment, with the redemption of those who survive on the fringes of ambiguity and are often marginalized by society. “I have a huge respect for prostitutes,” remarks Witkin. “They sacrifice their lives for their children.”

Celebrating Life Through Death

Behind the aesthetics of the Witkin aura is a man whose humanity takes precedence over the almost compulsive need to work. After a recent visit to the city’s red-light district, he encountered a prostitute, who pregnant, sat crying in a brothel. The plight of the woman broke his spirit and affected him deeply. Although he tries to maintain a “neutrality”, like that of a doctor, the emotional connection with his subjects is evident in his photographs. For Witkin, his work and the “experience” are intricately bound together, like the duality of the severed heads in “The Kiss.” For this photographer, images are born out of honesty and “have to be a discovery.”

Exploring the inner and exterior realities of his self-professed “message art,” Witkin sees photography as a form of prayer, where life is celebrated through death. Using an allegory of a “clown before an altar,” the photographer professes his Catholic faith and wants people to see what is in “his heart.” By praying the rosary every day to give him “strength,” especially when working in a foreign country, Witkin counterbalances his own search for spirituality with his secular surroundings.

Capable of creating complex images on a negative, Witkin’s message is essentially one of simplicity and hope. His personal writings, which he incorporates into the tableaux, appear to him like an obituary, written from the vantage point of someone who has earned his way into the history books. “The only need I’ve ever had is to go home,” he says, reciting like a monk from his diary. “To leave this place, knowing I’ve made a contribution to life.”

[This article and the accompanying artwork originally appeared in The City Paper, a free Colombian newspaper launched by the author. They are republished with his permission.]

2 Responses to “Joel-Peter Witkin in Colombia”

  1. I really want to work with Mr. Witkin and I think he'd feel the same about me!

  2. What an insightful article and an entertaining read.

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