Joel-Peter Witkin Is Master Of The Macabre

Joel-Peter Witkin's art has been described as horrifying, outrageous, macabre, "photographic necrophilia," and "the snuff film of the art world." Most of his images can't be reproduced in a family newspaper. It can be difficult to look at them, yet even harder to turn away.

Witkin uses the camera and the printing process the way a poet uses pen or keyboard - to explore ideas and emotions. Though his medium is black and white photography, Witkin does not depict reality but manipulates it - superimposing imagery of earlier artists, religious icons, or myth - to express universal truths of human existence, "a clarification of the philosophy of my life," as he puts it.

Or simply to shock, his critics contend.

Witkin's subjects - nudes living and dead, dwarfs, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, people who are obese or deformed or whose body piercing goes way beyond nose and nipple rings, even severed body parts from cadavers - are, to many, grotesque.

Much of his imagery, including what he adapts from artists of the past, evokes death or torture. Perhaps his best known picture, "Le Baiser (The Kiss)," shows what appears to be the severed heads of two cadavers kissing - until you realize the heads seem to be identical. Twin cadavers? A head sliced in half? Or images manipulated in the printing process to create that impression?

Witkin transforms body parts and the living curiosities he calls "unusual people" into burnished, luminous portraits in which the bizarre variations of the human (and animal) form represent his vision of beauty. It's a vision that's inspiring or debasing, depending on the eye of the beholder.

The 54-year-old photographer explains his controversial vision tonight in a slide show at the University of Washington. It's not for the squeamish. Yesterday, he talked about his art, and that by local artists he was judging for the annual show at the Center on Contemporary Art (COCA). The ones he chose will be on display beginning Jan. 28.

"My work shows my journey to become a more loving, unselfish person," he explained. "The dichotomy is the subjects I choose, who represent the outcasts of society, the most unloved.

"In my best possible world, ugliness would be in museums, and everything out in the world, on the street, would be beautiful."

Some critics have found not beauty but immorality and horror in Witkin's work. They argue that he exploits his subjects in much the same way a pornographer does.

Witkin shakes his head.

"My purpose is to show the beauty of the distinction of these unusual people. Hours are spent informing them so I can have their consent to be photographed. I show them my work, I assure them I'll make a photograph that is exquisite. I can't cause harm - I want to cause healing. It's my job to create trust between them and me."

Many of his photographs are references to other artists (Goya, Titian, Grant Wood among them); Witkin echos poses or other elements of their paintings, translated into his unique visual language. Some viewers have seen this as simply a game, a display of cleverness; others call it homage, while some are sure it's parody.

Whatever they represent, his photographs are not a capturing of a single moment but the creation of a scene. How does he make a picture?

"I am thinking always not of what is before my eye but of how the print will look - that's the nature of photography. Construction of tableaux is a subjective and metaphorical enclosure in which I can make my own choices."

Although he takes all the photographs and makes all the prints himself - it is for the printing as well as the controversial subject matter that he is known - staging the scene is a collaborative and enormously time-consuming effort, Witkin says.

"I make only six to 10 photographs (final images) a year. Luckily they turn out."

Most of the local work he judged yesterday was not successful in his eyes but he also found works that showed "that spark."

"The best work deals in a clear internal vision. Instantly you get something that is the spirit of the work; it's either there or it isn't.

"In others I see an ability that's misguided, maybe even prostituted. The most hopeful are the artists whose vision is maturing."

Witkin's photographs are in collections of museums and wealthy individuals around the country; he will have a major show at the Guggenheim in New York City in January 1995. But he says it is passion, not payment or prestige, that keeps him working 10 or 12 hours a day.

"If I kept my work in a box and no one saw it, I'd still do it for my own personal enlightenment because that's the truest way of seeing the change and growth in my own life. But if I found a different way tomorrow, I'd pursue that. I'm not locked into the method. It's the outcome that counts.

"Whatever a person does should be sublime. I can see a person washing dishes with such care and finesse that it's a beauty to watch.

"I can't imagine what I'll be making a year or two from now, how I will be changing in my own life and how my photography expresses that change.

"Creation didn't stop on the sixth day," he adds, an allusion to the biblical icons evident in his work.

"It continues through us. It must! It's a form of divine intervention."

Joel-Peter Witkin gives a slide lecture on his work at 7:30 p.m. today in Room 130 of Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus ($7.50). He will judge the annual Center on Contemporary Art exhibition; the works by local artists he chooses will be on view Jan. 28-March 12 at COCA, 1309 First Ave.