Stranger than fiction

When Joel-Peter Witkin exhibited his work in Britain for the first time in 1991, the show was almost closed down. Now, Fomfeis, Scotland’s international festival of photography is hosting an exhibition of new work on the theme of mortality that looks set to churn up a new storm.

Lila Rawlings talks to the man who will be at the centre of the controversy.

magine a scene from your worst

nightmare frozen in time and bathed in

sepia tones. Add some scratches and burn

out the edges. multiply the intensity by ten

and you might get close to what it feels

like to look at one of Joel-Peter Witkin‘s photographs. That is. of course, if your nightmares are made up of dismembered body parts. the mutilated and the deformed. severed heads and masked hennaphrodites performing ‘deviant' sex. To call his work extreme would be an understatement. to dismiss it as merely sensationalist too easy.

Born in New York in 1940 to Russian-Italian parents. Witkin was raised a Roman Catholic. In the preface to one of his monographs of work. he describes his first conscious recollection. when he was six years old. ‘lt happened on a Sunday. my mother was escorting my brother and myself down the stairs of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. Walking through the hallway to the entrance of the building. we heard an incredible crash mixed with screams and cries for help. The accident involved three cars. all with families in them. Somehow in the confusion, I was no longer holding my mother’s hand. 1 could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I reached down to touch the face. to ask it. but before 1 did. someone carried me away.’

In his own words. this horrific event left its mark. Out of it grew his art and the obsession with violence. pain and'death that characterises his photography.

When his twin brother got a place at a Dominican art college, Witkin helped him by

taking photographs for his paintings. One of

their earliest collaborations was a ‘freak‘ show

12 The List 22 Sept-5 Oct 1995

at Coney Island. The people he photographed. a three—legged man. a dwarf and a hermaphrodite fascinated and moved him and was to be the inspiration for his ‘philosophical and artistic investigation of what it means to be human‘.

Nearly 40 years later. Joel—Peter Witkin is in big demand and his strange and disturbing photographic prints are widely collected. lie is often compared to other controversial American photo-artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe. Cindy Sherman and Andres Serrano. whose Morgue photographs exhibited at Portfolio gallery kept the tabloids busy during this year's Edinburgh Festival.

In 1991. Witkin‘s first exhibition in the 1K. at London‘s prestigious llamiltons gallery. was almost closed down because one of the photographs. The Feast of l’ou/s. featured a cornucopia of exotic fruits. severed limbs and most disturbing of all. a dead baby. In the picture. the influence of art history on Witkin's style is obvious. More like a painting by a Dutch master than the work of a late 20th century

Portrait as a Vanite, New Mexico (1994) photographer. the formal aspects of the photograph add to the already grotesque look 01 the picture. bringing a new dimension to the term ‘still-life‘.

When the photograph was reproduced in The Independent on Sunday in an article entitled Strung filed]. the newspaper was bombarded with letters of complaint. Witkin. somewhat naively. claims he was shocked by the hostile response: ‘Out of twelve reviews. only one was positive . . . but this really means nothing to me because 1 make the work to illuminate. not to please. 1 photograph mostly living people but sometimes 1 photograph dead people because it's all part of life. 1 don’t work this way because I‘m morbid but because death is a part ofexistence.’

At 55. Witkin is all energy and breathless enthusiasm and it‘s almost impossible to interrupt his excited stream-of—consciousness spiel on spiritualism. philosphy. mysticism and religion. He doesn't sleep much. he says. which seems strange coming from a man whose photographs evoke the half-remebered eerieness that can