come from a bad dream. I silently wonder if the bizarre tableaux he creates are his waking dreams.
‘ln my early work I was experimenting with sexuality.‘ he says. 'I was much younger and felt that I was going to live forever. I thought I was the best thing that had ever happened to reality until I got wiser and humble and more real. My work in the 70s and 80s was about the body and physical change.’
Looking at the work from this period is a painful experience. His life models are all physically ‘deformed' or scarred. naked except for the masks and fetish chains piercing their bodies. They are often belted. hooded or highly fetishised. How does he respond to the charge that he is exploiting his subjects? ‘I don‘t see how people can accuse me of cxploitation.‘ he says. ‘My purpose in presenting difference is not to'put it in your face and say: “Look. here‘s a cripple" or “Hey. look at this guy with breasts". but to show there is a sublime beauty in difference and darkness.‘ He is also adamant that his models enter into a relationship of trust and consent which removes any hint of exploitation. Who. I wonder. is there to give consent on behalf of the poor dead baby or the severed head that he photographed served up on a plate in 1990'? ‘I operate in a very ethical way under the consent of professional people.’ he answers.
In some of the photographs. his use of classical poses and artefacts together with the intricate way each print is produced does produce a kind of unnerving serenity. ln Portrait as a Vanite (1994) a naked man with one arm stands with his hand resting on a skull. His eyes and nose are covered by a slick black mask. his hair festooned with grapes. He looks like a beautiful broken statue. ‘This man lost his arm from cancer when he was ten years old.’ says Witkin. ‘ln the picture his missing arm is replaced by his penis. giving the image crudity as well as elegance. He is basically fucking death and saying: “I don‘t care. I‘m different and I can survive."
In Witkin‘s photographs. each model exists to satisfy the viewer‘s own inquisitive gaze. In his efforts to present his subjects as spiritutal. emotional beings. Witkin has unintentionally reinforced them as ‘freaks‘ in a cruel world. By taking these individual people out of their social context. he takes them out of the reality of their own lives and presents them to us as passive aesthetic objects trapped in the drama of his own fiction-fantasy. Ashe himself admits. these images are ultimately more about his own life than anything else: ‘I consider myself a portraiturist: not of people. but conditions ofbeing. I am making a record of events which will show how one person. one phantom. engaged the world.’
Witkin the ‘man‘ may be a worthy subject for his own artistic exploration but I am left feeling frustrated. Who are the people in his photographs. where have they come from. how do they live. what are their dreams. and how do they feel about their images hanging on the walls of another smart art gallery in another strange city?
Joel-Peter Witkin at Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, 3 October—l8 November: Joel-Peter Witkin will give F otofeis Lectures at Traverse, Edinburgh on Wednesday. 18 October at 6pm. Glasgow Film Theatre on Friday 20 October at I] ant and Stills Gallery on Sunday 22 October at 4pm. Call Fotofeis on ()13/ 555 5205 for details. For all Fotofeis exhibitions opening this issue see Art listings.
JOEL-PETER WITKIN FEATURE
Man with Dog, Mexlco City (1990)
Head Dead Man, Moxlco (1990)
The List 22 Sept-5 ()ct [99513