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Raw Exposure

Monday, April 6, 2015
Sun Shuangjie

Photographer strives for hope in disturbing

One of Joel-Peter Witkin's most famous photographs is of a dead man's head that has been sliced in half and arranged so it looks like the two sides are kissing each other.

It is a photograph full of ceremonial feelings. The face, old and wrinkled, turns to eternity and emits a sense of grace against a backdrop of blackness.

Over his career, Witkin has produced shocking yet enticing scenes involving corpses, body parts, hermaphrodites and deformed people.

American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin
Photos: Courtesy of Ofoto Gallery

He carefully arranges the position of his models and props as if he were a theater director. After shooting, he often manipulates the negatives in the darkroom with pins and razor blades, adding atmospheric details to the original images.

Witkin has had more than 150 solo exhibitions in galleries and museums around the world. He was awarded the title of Commander of Arts and Letters of France in 2000.

"What I photograph is the condition of life in these times based on the past, the moral, social, political history of the Western world. And I made photographs of those subjects with one thing in mind, how all of these come together in our time," Witkin said.

Recently, Witkin's first two solo China exhibitions have opened. Ofoto Gallery in Shanghai (2/F, 13 Bldg, 50 Moganshan Road, 6298-5416) is showing around 40 photographs and two sketches until May 14; while Art Museum of Nanjing University of the Arts (15 Huju Road North, Nanjing, 025-8349-8693) is displaying around 40 photographs and 10 sketches until May 9.

Death is not despair

"I photograph corpses and parts of bodies because death is part of life. If we didn't die, we'd go insane," Witkin told the Global Times at the Ofoto Gallery on Thursday.

Witkin was born in 1939 and brought up during World War II and the Cold War. He is a triplet from a troubled birth. He and his identical twin brother survived, but his fraternal twin sister didn't.

When he was a child, he witnessed a horrific car accident outside his house in which a young girl got decapitated. He has said that the incident informed his subsequent work and fascination with the fragility of life.

His father would show him photographs of the war in newspapers, which inspired Witkin to become a photographer. He was a photographer in the army during the Cold War, during which time he experienced the panic of the Cuban Missile Crisis and was a witness to the chaos in Dallas after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Witkin talks of these somber events in a lighthearted manner. He seems far younger than his 75 years, dressed in a leather jacket and wearing a pair of black glasses with white polka dots on the frames.

He says the reason so-called outcasts feature so prominently in his works is because he wants to show the beauty of differences. "If people say a deformed person is an outcast, then they are saying that God made a mistake," he said.

Although the Shanghai exhibition is named The Despair of The Soul, Witkin told the Global Times that the spirit of his work is never about despair, but rather it is about "hope and about improving life."


Historical references

"But The Raft of George W. Bush (pictured above) is about the despair of the soul," Witkin laughed, talking about his 2006 work that turns the scene from the famous 19th century painting The Raft of the Medusa in to a photograph featuring Bush's "ship of fools" filled with politicians, transvestites, hermaphrodites and centaurs. The photo is on view at Shanghai exhibition together with a sketch version.

Witkin often references art or religious history in his photographs, relating them to contemporary stories.

While in China, he will finish a work entitled Chinese Adam and Eve, which will relate the biblical story to China's place in the world order.

"In 1870 China was the second-biggest power in the world, as it is now, the first was England. Right now, China is next to the US. Whether it becomes the first power depends of course on what the Chinese do," he said.