Last Sunday I observed a man reminiscing his life of photography. This wasn't an ordinary man. Never stereotyped as a feeble elder of 79 years, he spoke directly, fluently and casually to us two-hundred or so members of a friendly audience who paid $20 to see him in person at Toronto's Revue Cinema.
Joel-Peter Witkin(DOB 1939) took his first photo at eleven years of age winning an award for a picture he took at sixteen. A photographer in the Vietnam war between 1961-1964, he freelanced after the conflict. Studying sculpture at Columbia University, he later received his MFA at the University of Mexico in 1986. Among his more than 150 exhibitions he has displayed his art at the Museum of Modern Art, the Galerie Baudoin in Madrid, Centro de Arte Reina Sofia Museum (1988), the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (2004), and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. Witkin received four national endowments, and the government of France bestowed him with a Legion of Honour. Today he lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Witkin shared some thirty samples of his work on the screen. On first impressions, the images appear from a deep well of horror focussing significant attention on humans who lived at the outermost margins of society and beyond where he would secure access to photographing human and animal remains. As ghoulish as it appears, there’s a chance we might raise our opinion to “unique” depending on how comfortable you feel with this. The graphic details may be disturbing but this evening it seemed natural for Witkin to reveal his favourites: two severed heads of old men kissing each other followed by a gay man laying on a cantilevered plank with a sling around his scrotum attached to a pully and rope, or a man with no legs sitting on a cart as we hear he fathered nine children. And then a beautiful woman with spina bifida is suspended in the air because she “never touches the floor.”
As I sit amazed and wide eyed we learn that many of his images would take weeks to create, gathering models and materials and sometimes paying out thousands of dollars for props and willing human subjects. Some critics say he seeks the sensational, the bizarre, or recognition for working on the fringes of creative madness. But hearing him speak, his steady intonation, his voice exuding a feeling of inner peace, dry humour and a sense of beauty and acceptance to which he has awakened, perhaps this reflects his experiences of being close to life, death, the putrid and the eternal.
There is a break in the conversation as he begins sharing thoughts about his father who was a glazier and with whom Witkin had little contact. Injuring himself when he accidentally fell off a roof, his father landed in a tree breaking his pelvis. He limped in pain for years until finally succumbing after gang members accosted him on a Brooklyn beach.
Influenced by parents of Catholic and Jewish ideology Witkin professes Christianity. I took his cue speculating on why he focussed on this blurred line that separates the physicality and spirituality of existence. As I mused, the screen flooded with an image of a naked black transgender women sitting on the floor breast-feeding a foetus - a lifeless body retrieved from a medical laboratory.
I sat trying to look through it all noting the feeling of the artist’s love for this human being that seemed to radiate to all his models. Could this be the love that he generates to fill the vacuum he never felt with his suffering father? If so, he is the man on the cross, crying out, Father why have you forsaken me?
I too regret, remaining separated from an possible after-show dialogue due to the urgency to catch the last train home.©