Interview: Joel-Peter Witkin
Joel-Peter Witkin Talks to Elizabeth Avedon
L’Oeil de la Photographie, December 21, 2012
Joel-Peter Witkin and son, Albuquerque 1988.
Photograph by Herb Ritts © Herb Ritts Foundation
“Witkin is a photographer who has been mistaken for a grave robber, whose works were described by Marina Isola as “Part Hieronymus Bosch, part ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’”
Cindra Wilson, Salon.com
“I’m a really happy person, but I think most people think I’m some sort of a monster. I’m intensely poetic, intensely sincere. I want to make a contribution to life and the quality of life, because I want to diminish evil and raise the possibility of goodness. I think that’s what every artist wants to do whether they’re totally conscious of that or not.” –Joel-Peter Witkin
Joel-Peter Witkin, born in 1939 in Brooklyn, New York, now based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, may be at the height of his career. His exhibition Heaven or Hell is opening at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France; and running concurrently at a gallery in Paris is an exhibition of all new work titled, History of the White World.
“It begins with my first conscious recollection, I was six years old. It 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. I could see something rolling from one of the over-turned 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 I did, someone carried me away. It could have defeated me, and I would have become insensible. Instead I chose to accept the injury and go on; because my will is stronger than death, stronger than the lostness of these times. This, my first conscious visual experience, left it’s mark.” Witkin wrote in his monograph, The Bone House (Twin Palms Publishers).
Back in October I had an engaging conversation with Witkin as he was preparing for his trip to Paris to work on his two exhibitions. Speaking with him was interesting. I learned many new things about him, both about his eccentricities and his genius. This was our conversation:
EA: This is Elizabeth, is this a good time?
JPW: It’s perfect, it’s perfect, it’s perfect. I just came back from Bogotá; I spent two days processing the film. I do it all myself, and now I’m spending the second day making the contacts, judging the negatives I’m going to take to print, so it’s a good time.
I make ‘History Photographs’ much like the 18th and 19th century painters would make ‘History Paintings’ (a genre in painting defined by subject matter rather than an artistic style, depicting a moment in a narrative story, rather than a static subject such as a portrait – look it up on Wiki), but in my case I just did one photograph in Bogotá that’s about the history of the cross as a tri-pod and a history of photography all in one. I like that kind of stretch. It’s called, Poet and Muse. The Muse, I found identical twins, women in their forties, who are just spitting images of each other. In Albuquerque, before I left for Bogotá, I drew this bridge that connects them at the hip, so they are Siamese identical twins in the drawing and in the photograph. They are talking to the Poet, who turns out to be a man who is the Laurence Olivier of Bogotánian actors. The guy is terrific. He looks like an ancient Christ figure. He has arthritis. He was perfect, perfect. I put a wreath on his head that was a kind of Christmas wreath I got in Albuquerque at a flea market where I shop all the time; and I made this kind of prosthesis for his arm in Bogotá.
Because I couldn’t go out anywhere, I read about three books, I wrote a short story, I was doing the drawings and finalizing all this work. The two women were wearing beautiful gloves I got in Paris; they’re joined at the hip as I mentioned. They are made up white, they’re nude, and in front of their sex is a piece of tulle held up by two blue butterflies I got in Paris at Deyrolle (the legendary taxidermy store). I deal with them a lot. If you saw “Midnight in Paris”, there’s a party scene with Josephine Baker that occurs at Deyrolle.
A few blocks from Deyrolle, seven or eight blocks, is a wonderful place I go to sometimes. It’s the place that the Apparition of the Virgin occurred of the Miraculous Medal (The Miraculous Medal: The Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Catherine Laboure in Paris). There’s a chapel it occurred in and a convent and on Sundays the garden is open. It’s very profound. When I’m there, I usually pick up miraculous medals for friends.
This was my fourth trip to Bogotá. The first time I had a museum show there and people were very, very helpful. I’ve gone there three times to photograph, but it’s gotten more and more dangerous, so that last time I was there I was robbed. I went out in the morning to buy underwear for a subject of my work of Jesus. Because of the kind of laissez-faire mentality in Bogotá, the store wasn’t open at 10:00; it opened at 10:30. Between 10 and 10:15 I was robbed.
EA: You were robbed on the way to buying underwear for Jesus?
JPW: Yes! (great laughter) I was very despondent. I’ve been robbed in Paris and pick pocketed in Rome. I travel a great deal, so this doesn’t represent an event that occurs often; luckily I’ve never been harmed. But this time I’m in a nice area, but a block away is “fermenting and evil,” let’s say. I didn’t go out except to go to Mass on Sunday two times when I could, the rest of the time I was accompanied by people I was working with who got me to a cab and could speak Spanish for me. The reason I was robbed was I was asked by one of these con artists where something was and I responded in English and that was it.
EA: Tell me about your upcoming show at the Bibliothèque Nationale in France.
JPW: The show coming up at the Bibliothèque Nationale will open March 15th, the Ides of March. It will be ninety-five of my prints chosen by the curator, Anne Biroleau, General Curator of the Prints and Photography Department, because of their art historical references. I’m going to be working with her directly when I go to Paris for the images from the Bibliothèque that will augment my photographs. They have one of the great collections of prints and photographs in the world, so I’ll be picking Dürer’s, Picasso’s, Léger’s, Max Beckmann, and a lot more obscure images I’ve never seen before that may relate to my work.
That’s going to be a wonderful time. I hope I’ll be spending some time at The Louvre. They have five hundred Ingres’ (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, b.1780 – d.1867, French Neoclassical painter). When he won the Prix de Rome, he was the most hailed salon painter in those times. He went to Rome and was homesick and got engaged to this woman. He then got used to being in Rome and he started making a lot of drawings. The outcome of history is his drawings were his greatest works, outside the exceptions of a few great great paintings. Very often a painter will get something down from his or her consciousness faster than making the paint. He would make a drawing in average of about 40 minutes and these drawings are just unbelievably wonderful. Even though he liked Rome, he came back to Paris, and his drawings were criticized because he was making necks too long and whatever. Now, of course, he is hailed as one of the great draftsmen of all time, one of the great painters of France. Then he went back to Italy to basically head the French Academy in Rome. He kept drawing; his greatest contribution to art was his drawings.
EA: Don’t you often begin with a drawing?
JPW: I begin with a drawing every time, basically it’s so important. Actually Man Ray was doing this often. I think any really concerned photographer, because in photography things happen so fast that you have to be ready for any kind of change of reality, not your reality, but the reality of the people you’re photographing and what they’re doing and how it relates to the work. Yes, I’ve always done drawings.
Back to the Bibliothèque, they are publishing a book, Joel-Peter Witkin. Enfer ou Ciel. Heaven or Hell, in both French and English. The book has three major writers, the curator herself, a journalist historian chosen by the curator, and also a theologian, which is important. We are living in a secular time. I am not a secularist; I’m a practicing Catholic. I’m kind of the George Wills of Photography (laughter). My work is about my identification and my belief system, being in life and what came before, and what’s going to happen in this life as much as I can understand and realize, and what happens after life. So instead of the swinging doors of the secularist; somehow I was here, somehow I’m here, and somehow it all ends, and there’s no cause or effect for the somehow. That’s a kind of a tie-in; we’re living in a secular age, especially in the white world.
“The History of the White World,” I named a few photographs after that kind of statement because what I really believe what I photograph in my work is the history of the white world. I don’t involve myself with the oriental, the occident. It’s the history of Europe and the Americas directly and the civilization of the white world. It’s not that I’m prejudice, but that’s what I understand. I’m a gringo.
To run concurrently with my show at the Bibliothèque in Paris, the Gallery Baudoin Lebon will show all new work, never seen before. I’ll have about fifteen or sixteen new pieces, with drawings on top of that and it will be called “History of the White World” but in French.
My life and my work are inseparable. Of course I’ve been disappointed in some of the work I’ve made, but it’s not the work that’s disappointing, it’s myself that wasn’t ready consciously to get to where the work was – where the idea was. No one bats a thousand, but I bat about eight hundred. If there’s an image that doesn’t work, I go back to basically grow it out, grow it again and it works out well.
I’m a really happy person, but I think most people think I’m some sort of a monster because of age and the fragility of life. I’m intensely poetic, intensely sincere. I want to make a contribution to life and the quality of life, because I want to diminish evil and raise the possibility of goodness. I think that’s what every artist wants to do whether they’re totally conscious of that or not.
EA: Is that the underlying message of your work?
JPW: I think that is the message of my work. We’re living in an age of relativism. We’ve reached a kind of state where everything is PC. If it’s OK, if it feels good, do it. I disagree with that because if you are a serial killer, and it feels good, you can’t say do it. (laughing). It’s all that kind of nonsense that is a kind of laissez-faire about moral decisions. I work with a moral imagination myself. I have a reason, a purpose to make the work and how I engage history. And this time together usually is basically what I’m interested in. Not that I disagree with secularists, they have their free will to be secularists, as I have a free will to be a religious person, but we have to live and love together. But you reach a moment in your life where you know what you are about, you should know why you are in life, what’s the purpose of your life, what’s the purpose of life for you to contribute to and you go on. And you basically have a presence, a philosophical and if it’s there too a theological reason for living and working.
EA: [We spoke about various people who were early collector’s of his work which brought us around to Robert Mapplethorpe and his partner, Sam Wagstaff].
JPW: I knew them for eleven years. When I was in New York I would always talk to Robert. In fact when Sam built the studio for Robert, the last one he had, there was a great party. That same day, I remember it was thundering and it couldn’t stop raining, I was photographing a woman.
I was in the Whitney Biennial the year before and I was in the museum with my wife. We were going upstairs and I noticed on the service elevator there was a woman in a wheel chair. She was wearing this blue hat and she had these movie star lips times two – natural, very beautiful, very sensual lips. She was an invalid. She was wearing this blue hat. She was great. I asked her if I could photograph her, so we corresponded.
So the same night as the opening of Roberts’s gallery, I think it was Halloween, I had just photographed her. It’s called “Woman in the Blue Hat.”
She was an Armenian American from somewhere in the Midwest and an agent for actors. She was wearing these great cartoon slippers and she had a slip on. I showed her the idea in the drawing and she said, “Well, I’ve never been photographed seriously before and I don’t know what you are going to do, so I want you to photograph one roll of film.”
I had a Rollei so it was one roll of 12 shots. I was up all night helping this friend of mine painting a Dutch background. I put the background up, I lit it with a couple of lights I carried with me. Of course she refused to be nude, which I accepted, so she had a bra and pants on. I lifted her up in this little alcove in her apartment where I was photographing. It had a kind of black base and the Dutch background. I had never photographed a living cripple before. So I was looking through the camera, and in a Rollei the image is reversed, I forgot myself and said, “Can you move your left leg a little bit?” I apologized and moved them a little and she laughed a little bit. When I came back to Albuquerque, I processed the film, I sent her the contact sheets because the arrangements I had with her verbally was she would have to approve my selection and if she didn’t I would return the 12 negatives all cut up.
After I photographed her and we said good-bye, I left her the painting and the props, which I normally do. I put the one roll of film back in my case, then went to the party at Roberts’s studio. The models were there, Lynn Davis was there, a photographer I have great respect for. I think she’s been an influence on Robert, of course, and also Cindy Sherman for that matter. I was careful to have my equipment checked, then I had a couple of drinks and talked to some people. We had a nice time.
I had such respect for her. That is tangent to every one, living and dead, that I photograph. When you are making a photograph, you are taking a few hours, even sometimes a few minutes of a person’s life. But you are not part of their lives; you are a kind of witness within time and space. So for me I accepted that challenge.
Luckily for me she said, “I like the image. It’s very wonderful. Very, very poetic. Go ahead and print it.” I printed first my master print and I sent her my own print for the model and it’s signed that way. I either pay people with money or prints. She was very delighted.
EA: Tell me about meeting Edward Steichen?
JPW: I was about 16 and I was taking photographs with a Kodak Pony camera with Kodachrome film.
Wonderful and true story. My mother wanted to be a pianist for the silent movies, but sound blew that away and the Depression. She was Italian Catholic, my father was Lithuanian Jewish; they were both first generation Americans. My Italian Grandfather, was one of the first to pick up bottle and rags and resell them. He was a peasant, never went to school, but he had twenty men working for him and eventually there were two apartment houses he built.
My father had just opened a glazier shop. His father, born in Lithuania, was a glazier and so were his five sons. There was an incredible thunderstorm in New York; they had ash cans then that were solid steel. This thunderstorm broke a lot of windows, there was a lot of damage. My Italian Grandfather called all these places for repair. They were occupied, but my father wasn’t. He came, measured the broken windows, came back and replaced them himself without any help. My Italian Grandfather invited him upstairs to have a glass of wine. That’s when father and mother met.
My father and mother both wanted to be artists, the times just weren’t there for them, but my mother encouraged all of us. My mother played the piano, that was our entertainment before television happened. When my sister showed interest in playing piano, my mother sent her to Carnegie Hall for lessons. Cost my mother a day’s work.
I have a twin brother, Jerome Witkin. He’s been teaching at Syracuse University for forty years, now Professor Emeritus. He just had a forty-year retrospective of his paintings, “Drawn to Paint.” He’s with the Jack Rutberg Gallery in L.A.
[In “Life Lessons: The Art of Jerome Witkin”, San Francisco Chronicle critic Kenneth Baker declares Witkin’s “only peer” is the British figurative painter Lucian Freud, also known for discomfiting psychological depictions.]
My brother was drawing with rocks and chalks on the streets while the rest of us were playing stickball. He was sent to Dominican Sisters within walking distance that had painting lessons for teenagers. My brother was considered a prodigy; he went to “Music & Art.” I was interested in making photographs. This is the key thing, I will get to Steichen, but this is how it all came about.
My parents agreed the children would be brought up as Catholics. My father was a secular Jew. He divorced my mother when I was three. We lived in the same building.
The War was going on in 1939. When my father visited, he would show me, even as I was four years old, pictures in the New York Daily News about the War. I thought outside the parameter of my neighborhood, the world was like this; it was at War. And all the photographs were these scratchy photographs, these dimly lit things. He was the ambassador of ‘real life’. He was showing me things that were called photographs and reproduced in newspapers and I got interested in Photography from that point on.
When my brother would see my early photographs, these little slides, well, we had no notion of barriers. He and I would go to the Museum of Modern Art, we’d go to the Metropolitan Museum, we’d go to the Whitney, and whatever. He said, “Go see Mr. Steichen.” I said, “That’s a good idea.” I got the number. I called up and I talked to his secretary. I said I’d like to bring a selection of work over and they said sure.
EA: Was he the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern by then?
JPW: It wasn’t all called the Museum of Modern Art at that time; he was at what was then called “The People’s Art Center” attached to the Museum of Modern Art. The collection of Photography and Prints were in that building.
I went there and the secretary of Mr. Steichen was Grace Mayer. She was this wonderful little Jewish woman who was from the family of Metro-Goldwin-Mayer, so she never had to work but she loved art, loved photography and she volunteered there. She was very sweet to me. I sat down and I said, “I’m Joel Witkin. I have work to show Mr. Steichen.” I gave her this little box of 35mm slides you have made at the pharmacy (chuckling). I had made a selection of 20 images.
Then I saw Mr. Steichen come in; of course I recognized him from pictures I’d seen of him as Commander in WWII in the Navy. He took the slides. I saw him shuffling around looking at them on the light box and then he came out and he said, “Whose work is this?” I said, “It’s mine.” He said, “I thought you are a messenger.” I said, “Well maybe I am a kind of messenger, but it’s my work.” He chose an image that was an abstraction I shot in Boston. He said, “I’m having a show and it’s called “Masterpieces of Photography from the Museum Collection.” He always had these grandiose names. He then had my photograph printed. I went with my brother to the opening. It was a terrific event.
EA: And you were still just 16 years old?
JPW: Yes. I was sixteen and a half. It wasn’t until 1970 when John Szarkowski was the Director of Photography that I brought prints there, and he chose other works of mine for the Museum of Modern Art Collection. First I thought it may have been a fluke, but I loved Photography, I loved it! So with that kind of stamp of Szarkowski, I said, “Yes, why not. Why not.”
I was in the Army from 1961-1964. I volunteered because I knew I was going to get drafted anyway and I wanted to be in Photography. I was a photographer in the Army. Before that I worked in different studios as an assistant photographer and I even worked as a dye transfer roller, a form of printing that’s rare now.
After basic training at Fort Dix, I was sent to Fort Monmouth. Because you never know in the Army what you’re going to get. You sign the paper, but you could go to cook school. I knew Photography so I came out #1 in the testing. Well, if I came out #1 maybe they’ll send me to Europe; but the Army has their own ways, maybe it was alphabetical, they sent me to Texas. I spent most of my time there, but I did spend a year and half photographing on maneuvers, photographing combat situations with a special 6×7 Honeywell Combat Camera with a motor drive, it was great.
At one time at Fort Hood, Texas, there was a 2nd Lieutenant who was Mel Brooks’ son, Max Brooks. I was on maneuvers with him in Germany and also in the Mojave Desert. He would be a laugh a minute. In Germany, we had this mobile photo lab that was on what is referred to as a “deuce and a half truck,” a big eight wheeler truck. We would process drone film, infrared film, and didn’t know what we were looking at. The negatives were sent to the specialist in the Army that we were always associated with, who would look at this film and know what they were looking at. We didn’t know. The point here is we had to draw water to process the film. We had a choice between two places. One was near a nudist camp. Of course Max chose the nudist camp. So there were always light moments, but I always made the best of the situation.
Just before I got out, a couple of things happened. One was the Cuban missile crisis. We were in South Carolina waiting for the end of the world. People went crazy. It was a time in my life where I really sat down and basically thought of how crazy the world is. My Philosophy for Photography then basically came about, and that is very simply that in a positive way that human beings are fuck-ups. We always do the wrong thing, at least by numbers. So if you want to make a contribution to life, it better be against the current state of the world. That’s what I try to do in my work.
After I got out of the Army, I went back to Cooper Union. By 1974 I’d finished Cooper Union and I got a fellowship in writing to Columbia. I was writing poetry. Then I decided to do graduate work because I had spent three years in the Army, I had three years of the GI bill. I only wrote to one place, because I knew that Van Deren Coke was at the University of New Mexico. I had been through New Mexico when I was stationed at Fort Hood and every time I went into New Mexico, it was a different world. I saw a few photographic shows of his in New York.
[Van Deren Coke, b. 1921 – d. 2004, was Founding Director of the University of New Mexico Art Museum, Director of George Eastman House, and Director of the San Francisco Museum’s Department of Photography].
I said this was my chance to basically study the History of Photography, the chance to work 24-7 on Photography. I sold my apartment in New York. I had this little place on Sullivan Street; I sold everything in the place. I went to Rivington Street, the Jewish section, and got this big trunk. I put my enlarger in there with my clothes and I was on a plane into Albuquerque. I made a phone call to a motel that picks you up at the airport. I looked around and I said, “How am I going to make work in this kind of place that’s ninety percent sunshine?” But of course I did because as soon as they gave me a studio and a darkroom, I was gangbusters. I loved it. I always have ideas for Photography and for writing, too. And now actually in my new work I’m combining those.
It was a great situation. I did my Masters with my thesis in a year and a half because I always felt that I’m older; I was older than some of my instructors. At 39, I met this woman, Cynthia, who became my girlfriend, who became my wife. We have a son Kirsten in New York. He’s very successful; he’s a painter too. He’s married to a beautiful, beautiful woman, she’s Japanese. She could be Miss Japan. She speaks French, Japanese, Chinese and English.
Cynthia was always bi-sexual and she took on a woman to live with us whose name is Barbara, who is my current wife. I built a studio for Cynthia as a tattooist. She was an elitist tattooist, she only wanted to do tattoo’s on certain people.
After I got my graduate degree I worked as a busboy and then I became a waiter and then a headwaiter. I was like 40 years old. I could work in the daytime in Photography and then go to work at night, which was a pleasant job. I learned about food and how to cook. And then the galleries in New York picked me up.
I went from food stamps with my first wife, to now having seven horses, four llamas’ and two hundred chickens, on about nine acres here with Barbara. They are all rescue animals. It’s a house that was built in 1927 ten minutes from Old Town. We finished making it a sanctuary for animals. It will never be broken up. My studio where I’m speaking from will be the basis of my Foundation when I leave this world, The Witkin Foundation. Everything has been taken care of. It will be all of my work and will employ three or four people. There will be revenues as far as reproductions, as well as storage and safe guard for my work, my oeuvre.
I saw this clip on a late night talk show, on Conan O’Brien. Richard Gere was talking about me, he mentioned Joel-Peter Witkin. He said, “I really regret not collecting more Witkins.” Conan O’Brien said, “I don’t know who this Witkin is, but we’ll be back.” Mazel tov.
Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Avedon