Throughout the decades of his career, 79-year-old photographer Joel-Peter Witkin's body of work has been described as shocking, controversial, dark, moody, poignant, terrifying—the list goes on. But there is also
humor in Witkin's corpses, amputees and otherwise stark subject matter; and hope. As CENTER, Santa Fe's preeminent (and internationally recognized) photo-driven organization, gears up for the Witkin retrospective, Splendor and Misery, we tracked the Albuquerque-based artist down to question him on the elements behind the work, his response to modern politics and the role of the artist in contemporary society.
SFR: One thing that comes up a lot when you're written about is this idea of
happiness. Granted, misery is often at the heart of a lot of your work, but there is also hope. Would you say this is fair?
JPW: Yes—because we make a decision, personally, all of us in life, to either be overcome by the world or to overcome the world. I think, as an artist, artists have to find the soul of their originality of themselves, whatever medium they choose to create from. We have to personally see the world in a new way and change the world. I think that old saying about 'by their works, you'll know them'—that to me conveys the fact that the artist has two responsibilities: to purify the notion of what reality is in their time and life, and to express through their instincts whatever images that show what the world is or was. I think it's a very optimistic position.
You've also said in interviews that you're not trying to shock, but rather trying to leave something meaningful behind. Do you feel you've achieved this? Is there some moment when an artist can say they've done "enough"?
Coming from the back side of that, I've read about and heard about artists retiring, but I don't think an artist can; for a visual artist, that's pretty hard. There's an immediate factoring of knowledge and what we receive and what we give to life. So no, I would never, in my mind, think of that. In fact, I say I've been an artist from the egg.
Speaking of which, with your body of work and output, you must work nonstop.
The approach to what I see that I respond to instinctively and passionately—that's the beginning point of a particular photograph, all the photographs—or if there's a particular person I respond to that I see that I feel must record as a process of reproduction of reality, that moment has to be from my spirit connecting to their spirit. I don't call the people subjects; they're colleagues. I think it's a kind of spiritual or cosmic blessing that people I photograph somehow appear in my life or my existence, and I can't deny them.
I'm curious about what you were into when you were coming up, or as a kid.
I think that can't be defined. The key point there is what you perceive has to be something that you know is personal and original and something that's never been seen before or presented in a way that your desire; the motivation to create something original and different all has to come together without the ego, with an aesthetic and spiritual passion.
Do you find yourself particularly influenced by these dark times or the politics of the day?
I just did a photograph of the current president riding a penis. It's a kind of take on the myth of the cowboy and the pseudo realities we're sucking down like vomit. I found a [Trump] lookalike in Chicago, I flew him here and paid him a lot of money, and I was very pleased. I'm a romantic. I think about the aesthetic grace that comes my way, and this guy was incredible. He was open to be posing nude, so it was really a wonderful experience. In my studio, when I make a photograph like that one, we're hysterically laughing. We're basically evolving the whole image, and even though I have the props and the lighting, I rely on the most critical factor—and that's what the subject of the photograph or my colleague is going through. It becomes a very momentous period of discovery. The penis was made in a garage, but it got so big we had to break the testicles part off, and I liked that. I was gonna repair it, but I liked the split. In a sense, it means all men are really schizophrenic. I photograph very quickly; it's going to happen right away, usually within one roll of film, 10 frames. I get it in the first or the last shot. I'll know I got it. In my very long career, making photos … no one bats 1000, but I bat about 800.
I'm told you haven't shown in New Mexico since 2014. Is there any reason behind that?
I'm always open to sharing what I do. It isn't a question of I don't promote myself, it's a question of if a gallery or a curator [wants to show the work], they'll get in touch.
It's just that simple?
What's in the future for you?
If something emerges not directly from something I'm reading, but a metamorphosis … if something is meant to come together as a concept, then I go with it. It's something that is kind of a vision that is made for me by way of, I think, the spiritual attributes that exist or a form of aesthetic grace. When it does happen, it's self-evident. My job is to edit as I'm photographing. I really think an artist prepares themselves for that moment. They have to stay original to themselves or honest to themselves. The wildest, strangest concepts—that, I believe, is information that's coming from above, spiritually, and we then can birth that into an aesthetic that's more comfortable to the way we feel. When you're hit by something, you go with it. … As I'm getting older, I'm more nonchalant as far as banging my head against the wall, but I've always been driven. I'm driven now. And wise. By wise, I mean the wisdom of age is a very important part. I feel as though what I'm making could be my last photograph, so I put everything into it as opposed to when I was younger and felt like the song would never end. The song is still there for sure, but I'm not sure if the time, my time, in this life is going to be cut short at any given moment.
Joel-Peter Witkin: Splendor and Misery
6 pm Friday Oct. 5. Free. Through Nov. 4.
El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe,
555 Camino de la Familia,