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Joel-Peter Witkin
February 24, 2005 12:08 PM   Subscribe

The morbid photography of Joel-Peter Witkin. (some of the pictures might be nsfw.)
posted by hopeless romantique (47 comments total)

 
Oh, right, the thumbnail photos in the first three links are halfway down the page.
posted by hopeless romantique at 12:09 PM on February 24, 2005


Metafilter: Testicle Stretch with the Possibility of a Crushed Face.
posted by GeekAnimator at 12:22 PM on February 24, 2005


Wow. Disturbing but beautiful.
posted by Specklet at 12:23 PM on February 24, 2005


In his 1998 book "The Bone House," Witkin claims that his unique visual sensibilities began to churn when, as a small child, he witnessed a terrible car accident in front of his home, in which a little girl was decapitated. He recalls her head rolling to his feet, her dead eyes staring upward. Witkin also cites urban crime photographer Weegee as an early influence.
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The most famous photographer of death is Joel-Peter Witkin, who specialised in photographing corpses in Mexican morgues. Witkin's photographs include The Kiss (1982), a severed, bisected head whose two halves appear to kiss each other in an echo of the sculpture Le Baiser. Witkin treated the bodies he photographed as still-life objects, often surrounding them with the tropes of still-life painting such as bowls of fruit though also producing more elaborate, fetishised, and carnivalesque tableaux. His use of dead bodies as props to be manipulated extended to a successful request for the decapitation of a male cadaver for his photograph Man Without A Head (1993).
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When Joel-Peter Witkin takes a photograph of a headless corpse (its neck terminating in a meaty stump, its penis shriveling into its fat stomach, its feet absurdly sporting black socks), does it repel you? Is death repulsive?
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his nephew Christian's work is not as scary
posted by matteo at 12:24 PM on February 24, 2005


"A Day in the Country" is going to be my Christmas Card photo this year.
posted by ColdChef at 12:27 PM on February 24, 2005


Wow. Christian Witkin has some great portraits.
posted by ColdChef at 12:30 PM on February 24, 2005


from the Salon article... in 1978 he married his wife, Cynthia, a tattoo artist. The two live in Albuquerque with their son, Kirsten-Ahanu Witkin, and Mrs. Witkin's lover, Cynthia Cook, and another woman by the name of Barbara Gilbert, whose apparent function is to care for the post-nuclear family's three dogs.

Cool.
posted by R. Mutt at 12:33 PM on February 24, 2005


OK, the simple fact that any of you find this work "amazing" is disturbing...

It people like this artist, and his followers, who contribute daily to the decay of our society...

You really like looking at a horny horse with his penis pointed to a naked woman?

...wow, you've got issues.
posted by bamassippi at 12:36 PM on February 24, 2005


I've been fascinated with Joel-Peter Witkins since I saw some of his photographs in a New Orleans gallery. I assumed that they were wax figurines or photo trickery, until the shoplady told me that, in fact, he uses real human corpses as props.

I have never been able to bring myself to buy one of his books, but his photographs have never ceased to fill me with a sick dread, mixed with wonder and joy.
posted by ColdChef at 12:40 PM on February 24, 2005


ColdChef, Christian's work is indeed very beautiful -- I love the Julia Ormond's portrait, Calvin Klein's and Thom Yorke's.
and it's cool that he took Kissinger's and Hitchens' portait -- but in the website they're separated by Gerry Ford.
and yes, I never had the balls to buy one of JPW's books too
posted by matteo at 12:44 PM on February 24, 2005


bamassippi,

Its people like you who annoy me. Sometimes its difficult to understand why people see artistic beauty in something, but its important to recognize that its there. I think quilts-making is just about the more boring thing in the world-- but some people take it very seriously -- so I therefore respect it. I am not advocating pure moral relativity -- but mocking someone who admires an artist, and saying that adds to the "decay of our society" is completely over the top.
posted by gagglezoomer at 12:47 PM on February 24, 2005


Amazing stuff! Thanks Hopeless.

...wow, you've got issues.

Why are we all here? Because we're not all there.

If you do not like this type of art, fine. But save your judgementalness. It won't play too well here.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 12:48 PM on February 24, 2005


It people like this artist, and his followers, who contribute daily to the decay of our society...

I sincerely hope you're being sarcastic.
posted by ColdChef at 12:49 PM on February 24, 2005


bamassippi : No issues, just admiration for great photography.
posted by ig at 12:52 PM on February 24, 2005


Back to the photos:

I really enjoy the icky humor displayed in a lot of his photos. Tell me you can't see the macabre playfulness in "Still Life with Breast." It never seems to be disrespectful, but that may just be my interpretation.
posted by ColdChef at 12:52 PM on February 24, 2005


I figure people who like this stuff have issues, and people who hate this stuff have issues, and neutral people have issues.

Speaking of which, what the hell are "issues" anyway?
posted by Bugbread at 1:00 PM on February 24, 2005


It people like this artist, and his followers, who contribute daily to the decay of our society...

Oh, for god's sake.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 1:01 PM on February 24, 2005


I find some of the work kind of interesting, but a lot of it seems boring. There is some creativity, obviously, but it just doesn't grab me.
posted by crazy finger at 1:17 PM on February 24, 2005


Woman Once A Bird is one of the most powerful photographs I have ever seen. Every time I look at it, I'm amazed all over again.

crazy finger -- I've heard from others that in "real life," not in books or over the Web, the photographs are texturally amazing, which one just doesn't get from a picture of a picture. Plus if you investigate his methods for creating the final product, it's pretty impressive, much like The Gates. They personally don't do anything for me, but I can appreciate the sheer enormity of the effort and hte innovation of it all.
posted by archimago at 1:24 PM on February 24, 2005


You know, I've often wondered where you really end up after you tick off that "donate my body to science" box on your drivers license renewal. I'm all for some poor schmuck getting my cold dead nipples if his fall out, but I'm not so sure I'm comfortable with having my head chopped off and my remaining torso being propped against a box for art's sake.

Nothing against the prints though. They're amazing.
posted by UncleDave at 1:24 PM on February 24, 2005


I was thinking the same thing, UncleDave -- I wonder what kind of consent issues are at work here?

However, consenting to donate your organs for transplant does not allow anyone to use your body for anything else.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 2:20 PM on February 24, 2005


bamassippi -
Would you show us something that you consider "good" art?
posted by 2sheets at 2:25 PM on February 24, 2005


Not to echo bamassippi's philistinism, but I do think there's something not right about Witkin's work. It's one thing to make assemblages and comment on the grotesque body a la Archimbaldo or to play with the aesthetics of mortality in the fashion of Jan Weenix. It's quite another thing to make of the body a collage.

I've admired his photographs for a long time, but I always walk away from them feeling a little dirtier for having viewed them. Is the aesthetic challenge they pose worth participating in an act of corpse degradation? Sure, we're all meat. But Witkin isn't posing meat, he's posing people. Isn't reverence for one's dead a fundamental constituent of culture?
posted by felix betachat at 2:28 PM on February 24, 2005


Back when I was in college, I went through a phase where I was very interested in Witkin. I not only liked the dark imagery, but the processes that he used in printing his photos. Like many above have mentioned, they have a very unique quality that is hard to get across on the computer screen (and is the result of much fiddling and work in the darkroom). From a purely technical standpoint, his stuff is pretty amazing.

I don't really have the chance to look for information to back it up right now, but I seem to recall that all the corpses that he got for his work were ones that were abandoned in morgues in Mexico (no relatives were able to be located) and due to the somewhat less stringent rules placed on their morgues (perhaps this is something that has changed in past years) at the time, he was able to buy these bodies and do with them as he pleased.
posted by almostcool at 2:35 PM on February 24, 2005


thank you for posting this.

i adore witkin. his surreal, nearly mythological, darkly dreamlike photos have always had a special resonance for me. and they're technically brilliant.

felix: i agree with you, there is something not right about a lot of his work.

i personally don't think it's the 'people as meat' ethos that's apparent - but something deeper that i can't quite put my finger on.

it's still evident in a lot of his photos which don't contain corpses or parts thereof - which is i guess why i like his work.

It people like this artist, and his followers, who contribute daily to the decay of our society... wow, you've got issues.

thank you, i'll be here all week.
posted by soi-disant at 2:37 PM on February 24, 2005


Bit of poseur, no? Mostly I'm reminded of this.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:53 PM on February 24, 2005


felix betachat: The question of whether reverence for dead bodies is fundamental to our nature rather depends on what you understand reverence to be.

In general, humans 'instinctively' steer clear of useless manipulation of human corpses, but when our motivation is generally understood to be beneficial (for the sake of science, for example) society confers the right to eviscerate.

In roughly the same way that strands of Buddhism advocate meditation whilst seated on a dead body - the idea being to truly understand the physical nature of mortality, the psychology of fear and disgust and the relationship between body and mind - an artist may pose an intellectual challenge in work like this.

Although I still don't have a fcking clue about the horny horse photo. Anyone?
posted by paperpete at 3:06 PM on February 24, 2005


Isn't reverence for one's dead a fundamental constituent of culture?

Not necessarily. I like the idea of a sky burial and I don't think too many people would argue that the Tibetans don't have a rich and respected culture.

I don't think Witkin is a poseur, I don't think he's doing it for shock value, I think he's a phenomenal artist whose subject material creeps people out.
posted by Specklet at 3:10 PM on February 24, 2005


I think people have an innate right to privacy. If these subjects would have been cool about posing like this when alive, then great. I'm uncomfortable with it though because I have no way of telling how they would have felt about it. I don't accept the idea that personal dignity shouldn't survive the person. The whole thing feels incredibly exploitative to me.
posted by willnot at 3:30 PM on February 24, 2005


Hmm, that sky burial link is interesting. I'm confused though. The writer points out that "the dead man's organs are removed and set aside for later, separate disposal", but they don't get mentioned again in the article. Anyone know what the 'separate disposal' is?
posted by GeekAnimator at 3:36 PM on February 24, 2005


i actually don't like the work. i mean, i study photography as my major in school so i'd like to think i have some sort of basis as to understand photography, and...i just don't like these shots. they simply don't appeal to me, i'm not really looking for beauty inside these images.

and all of that is okay, because in the end they're jsut photographs.
posted by virga at 4:11 PM on February 24, 2005


I think people have an innate right to privacy. If these subjects would have been cool about posing like this when alive, then great. I'm uncomfortable with it though because I have no way of telling how they would have felt about it. I don't accept the idea that personal dignity shouldn't survive the person. The whole thing feels incredibly exploitative to me.

Mmm, I think that's going a little too far. I understand your sentiment, but most of us wouldn't consent to anything that commonly happens after we die while we're alive. There's a whole lot of indignity in death, whether by the undertaker or a scientist. So the question becomes: is this qualitatively different? I think it probably is, but I don't have any idea where a line can be drawn.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 4:49 PM on February 24, 2005


Joel-Peter Witkin also "inspired" a lot of the images in the Nine Inch Nails video, Closer.
posted by jonp72 at 4:56 PM on February 24, 2005


the simple fact that any of you find this work "amazing" is disturbing

You're just jealous.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:15 PM on February 24, 2005


However, consenting to donate your organs for transplant does not allow anyone to use your body for anything else.

Thanks for pointing this out, littlemisscranky. Too many people are already squicked out about organ donation without added worries about rutabagas in the cranium, or horse dicks anywhere.

If you haven't read it, let me recommend to you (and everyone else on this thread) the informative and entertaining Stiff.
posted by vetiver at 5:49 PM on February 24, 2005


Mostly I found this work to be, at best, interesting, intriguing, maybe even compelling, but to be honest, I found very little I would describe as beautiful, or even really attractive, or just pleasant.

At worst, some of it seemed to be going for outright shock value - that sort of "Ooh, yeah, that's a great taboo, let's violate it, lots of people will be really upset that about this, which proves that they're philistines and that I am an Artist!" aesthetic.

In my view, and in the same general ugly/beautiful still-life vein, the work of Simon Larbalestier is more compelling and closer to my notion of beauty in most cases; I, like many people probably, was introduced to Simon's work via Pixies' cover art.
posted by kcds at 6:54 PM on February 24, 2005


trash
posted by nj_subgenius at 7:13 PM on February 24, 2005


trash
Well, glad we got that settled.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 9:10 PM on February 24, 2005


Perhaps I could like it if it wouldn't make me nauseus. I must have issues.
posted by semmi at 11:13 PM on February 24, 2005


I find it revolting. I've looked at a good number of the dead from Iraq, out of a sense of obligation to witness the horror, but I don't tend to look at corpses for artistic merit. It's good that not everyone has a weak stomach though.
posted by VP_Admin at 12:08 AM on February 25, 2005


"It people like this artist, and his followers, who contribute daily to the decay of our society..." -- bamassippi.

Relax. At USD$5000 per book, no-one is ever going to see this stuff sized larger than a business card: the only people who can afford to collect his work are the idle rich. (And the resale value is even higher.)
posted by Ritchie at 2:22 AM on February 25, 2005


On the trash/art debate : my personal opinion (and like virga, I went to art school, though photography was not my major) is that Witkin is incredible. His sense of composition is amazing. If you deconstruct the photos in terms of how they're put together, ignoring subject matter, they're all flawlessly composed.

As for subject matter : I have a fairly thick stomach and can handle death being presented artistically. I think that these images would be a lot harder to deal with if he were presenting his subject matter disrespectfully, but I just don't see that. While I think that he intends to shock his audience and push the limits of repulsion, I think there's a lot in his images that connects with people on a basic level.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:04 AM on February 25, 2005


Some time ago, I took the opportunity to see the Sally Mann show "What Remains." The photography was beautiful. The theme of the show was death but only a handful of images disturbed me. These were the photos she had shot at "The Body Farm" in Tennessee, that facility to which people donate their bodies to advance the study of forensics. Mann had taken photos which leant a sexual aspect to the images of the corpses, by the angles and cropping of the shots. This was surely not the intention of the body donors and I imagined finding an image of one of my loved ones there. William Bass, the director of the Body Farm, showed, in my opinion, bad judgement in allowing art to be made of bodies in his care.

I also recently visited the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. The former curator, Gretchen Worden, had a similar, artistic approach to the collections, which largely consist of pieces of former persons.

It is more difficult to appreciate the esthetic value of a work made from a person with a history, a person who lived and suffered and finally died. I now prefer my death-themed art (which I still appreciate for its salutary effect of making us remember we all must die) to be non-specific to any (former) individual.
posted by Morrigan at 6:38 AM on February 25, 2005


Ah, bamassippi and other critics, I'm sorry but you can't sit at the cool kids table.

These arteestic statements are only for the genuine sophisticates who can appreciate the aesthetic genius in manipulating corpses for public display. It doesn't bother the truly hip at all - as long as the dead bodies are anonymous indigents, not one of our loved ones or Someone Important. (Although wouldn't that be Art Really Making a Statement, if we could do this with JFK or Ronald Reagan's or your child's body?)

(And yes, as I can hardly stand to read the descriptions here without my stomach churning, let alone view the images - so flail away at me for judging "art" without even being familiar with it.)
posted by NorthernLite at 9:42 AM on February 25, 2005


I don't think people who like this guy's art are "the cool kids", "genuine sophisticates", "the truly hip", or any of your other fine sarcastic barbs. They're just folks, who like the guy's art. But they sure aren't "contributing to the decay of society", and I have yet to hear what the hell "having issues" means. And, for that matter, as one of "the cool kids", I can confidently say that pretty much all the critics, minus bamassippi and nj_subgenius, are perfectly welcome to sit at my table. If they aren't welcome to sit at your table, by all means say so, but don't presume to tell folks whether they're welcome to sit with me without actually, you know, checking with me first.

So, NorthernLite, sorry if we haven't apologized for destroying civilization, but I don't think failing to apologize for something you don't think wrong ipso facto makes you a snob, either. There are plenty of people in here saying they don't like the guys work, but only bamassippi is getting flak. There's a very, very good reason for that.
posted by Bugbread at 11:19 AM on February 25, 2005


*pulls up a chair to bugbread's table, starts carving the roast*
posted by felix betachat at 11:25 AM on February 25, 2005


The fact that the publisher has chosen to pair Witkin's photographs with Blake's poetry is somewhat peculiar to me. I can't think of a more obvious, immature, and uninteresting poet than Blake. But at $14,000 I don't think I'll be buying one of these books anytime in the next 40 years anyway.
posted by crapulent at 9:51 PM on February 25, 2005


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