SAYI 43 / 1 HAZÝRAN 2005


(Turkish >>>)

Kubilay Akman*

American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin (Brooklyn, New York, 1938) provides tiring images with the lightest expression. We are coming face to face with the complicated problematic clew on life, death, art history, religions, body, pain and pleasure while watching his works of art.

As my Spanish colleague Joan Fontcuberta stated (the editor of Photovision magazine) in this quarter century the world transformed from the “absurd” age into the “horror” age.** Certainly the contagion of American style extremenesses through mass media has a big role about this transformation. We do not surprise to the new perversions, extreme socialities anymore. We hear new examples of perversion and extreme social situations everyday and almost we came to the position that never shocked by them. TVs and newspapers are full of the horror pictures.

Maybe the art of Witkin is basically fed by the transformation of social/cultural atmosphere from “absurd” into “horror”. Behind the unreal halos a mirror is directed to the strange, uncanny and dark sides of the world we live in, with a very stylized form.

I suppose Witkin who composes dead people, extraordinary bodies, transvestites, different fetishistic objects and animals in his photographs is influenced by being a member of American society as well as his individual experiences about his orientation on the extreme, radical and mortal things. He witnessed a traffic accident near home while he was a little boy still. He saw the head of a girl sundered and rolled. It was a scene, which appalled the photographer of the future. Again in these years his father showed him some photographs from Life and Look magazines, Daily Mirror and News. There is a communication between them that is performed through glances without words. His father who is a glazier never can take photos like them. He wished his son would get into this field one day for his place. And the kid responded his father as said “yes, I will do” with his glances.

Later, his experiences in several states of America and European Countries during his military service (in the first half of 60s) as a photo-technician and documentary photographer would affect on determining his artistic way. Witkin took the photos of soldiers who died in traffic accidents and suicides in this period. The deaths he witnessed did not disturb him. According to the artist not death, the human capacity to institutionalize violence is disturbing in reality.

Witkin who first studied sculpture at the Union School of Art (New York), later studied photography and art history at the New Mexico University (Albuquerque), researched on poem at the Columbia University with a scholarship, succeeded combining his strong academic background with a mystic sensitivity. The artist traveled in India in his youth years to learn Yoga nad he has saved his interest to the Eastern religions always. Witkin thinks it is sorrow that in our age “we are separated from the wonder, mystery and fate sensation a little more every day.” Because of this reason in the works of Witkin who satirizes the Western masterworks there is a religious/mystic part always. He considers his art as a vehicle for his individual purification and entreaties will be offered to God on the divine altar when he will die. At the same time, These works also may be considered as critical elements that take their power from a religious argumentation as well as deconstruction of all the art history against the hypocrisy of modern societies that emphasizes continuously through the advertisement culture what is beautiful, excellent and smooth. Also his works are humorous in their fictionalness. According to Witkin “humor is the main human feature that make possible to survive. “If people cannot see a humorous part in the things, the great part of their approach to reality may diminish.”

Witkin thinks that while living “every minute is a decision moment. There is a moral code in the heart of each of us, this is a question to find the fate and the destination of the fate. Life is an examination place. It should be a great examination area.” The artist carries the conscious of this examination in his mind always. His works are the projections of this inner accounting, spiritual voyages and investigation. A technical investigation companies to the spiritual investigation of Witkin. He makes consciously deformations in the chemical structure of the films (he still continues to use the traditional techniques in the photography field which is digitalized more and more) and on the prints. The aesthetic values of the photographs he created not emanated from the compositions they include. His technical preferences are permanent parts of his style. For example, we can take the paintings of Mustafa Horasan to see how the compositions of Witkin become different things when they are separated from their technical specialties or from photography as a genre. As it is known, Horasan took some photographs of Witkin as models and made a series of painting based on them. In my opinion, these works have an independent artistic value certainly apart from their models. But they are totally different things now, before everything they are pictures and have a pictorial value. I believe that the emotion they make audience felt is completely different although to measure that kind of thing is impossible.


When Witkin takes a transvestite and locate in the position of Venus or makes a dwarf Daphne as turn back and struggle with the art, mitology and thought tradition of Western Europe and especially Ancient Greek maybe he is inspired by the anger feeling against this tradition that has a social and philosophical background as well as by personal sexual obsessions. I do not know how it is true but as I heard Joel-Peter Witkin had his first sexual experience with a hermaphrodite. Absolutely the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts would accept the trauma of the first experience in the mind of the young man. This one and similar experiences might cause his preference to tell persons with “abnormal” sexualities and their practices often. The work of none of artists is disconnected from the social contexts of artists and their experiences. This process works even for the most sophisticated and indirectly artistic productions. I suppose in the example of Witkin the connection situation between artistic expression ways and social practices is very apparent.

A life time full of investigation of strange, irrational, pervert, extraordinary individuals to include in the photographic compositions; conversion of morgues into studios; construction of images where the extreme become an ordinary and daily subject... Why? This is not a proper question. Can not be Witkin orientated to produce that kind of works with the same reason why authors construct the same images in the literary level, directors make horror and night mare movies, these extraordinary pictures are illustrated in holly scriptures, official documents, newspaper pages and TVs, or, why we examine the photographs of Witkin with the slightest detail and open his albums page to page with enthusiasm? Consequently, if we continues to look at the same display, the elements that have seduced Witkin and us are the same. So the question of “why” loses its ontological background.

*Research Assistant, Anadolu University, Eskisehir, Turkey
* *Look Photovision, Madrid, issue:19