Joel-Peter Witkin laughs easily, spouts silly jokes and kisses a visitor’s hand as she leaves.
Not the kind of behavior you’d expect from this master of the macabre.
Depending on your point of view, the Albuquerque resident is either famous or infamous for black-and-white photographic assemblages featuring corpses and body parts. He sets people with physical deformities in staged tableaux evoking 19th century studio photographs, as well as Baroque compositions. The images can both attract and repel.
Santa Fe’s CENTER is showing “Splendor and Misery: An Exhibition of Legendary Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin” through Nov. 4 at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe Gallery. CENTER also will host “An Evening With Joel-Peter Witkin” at the closing event of the annual Review Santa Fe Photo Festival at the Drury Plaza Hotel on Saturday, Oct. 20. Witkin is the keynote speaker.
Now 79 and sporting trademark oversized black-and-white polka dot glasses, Witkin insists he is anything but grotesque. But he recognizes his status as one of the most controversial artists in America.
Witkin has created images of severed arms and feet within a carefully placed still life. Most notoriously, he once produced a photograph of two severed heads kissing.
“Most people think I’m a dark soul, but no, I’m a lighthearted person about 10 years short of a clown,” he said, grinning in his South Valley studio, his torso bouncing with his laugh. A Mickey Mouse clock looms over him on a high wall.
“I’ve always been interested in living people,” he insisted. “I haven’t photographed remains in about 20 years.”
Witkin lives on about seven acres surrounded by a canopy of trees towering over a menagerie of rescued horses, burros, llamas and three dogs. His wife, Cynthia, returned to him about a year ago after being divorced from him for more than 20 years.
“It’s a miracle of love,” he said.
Witkin has worked with people at the extreme margins of society, often in countries where the laws are more lenient about human remains.
Despite the challenging and often shocking nature of his photographs, his work hangs in major museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.
A devout Catholic, Witkin says his work is about morality.
“I’ve always been interested in the drama of life,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s dark imagery. I believe it’s part of reality. I think we’re here to solve problems – what life means and what people can contribute to life.
“Even in death, it can be beautiful,” he continued. “The crucified Christ is probably the most often visualized image of death.”
CENTER’S program and exhibitions manager Angie Rizzo says Witkin’s work opened her mind.
“It’s important for several reasons,” she said. “It asks the question of why his subject matter is so taboo.
“Now death happens in hospitals and institutions, so all the spiritual rites of passage are monitored by the law,” she said. “There’s a lot of assumptions that if someone’s sick and dying, they have to be in hospitals; they can’t be at home. Death is a hidden matter.”
Witkin’s work with dwarfs, amputees and transsexuals predated the radical acceptance of alternative body types, she added.
The portrait “Satiro” depicts a legless, armless man as a satyr. Witkin appended his torso with the fresh legs of an elk, adding a crown of thorns to his shoulder stumps. A herd of sheep grazes peacefully in the background. Witkin shot the 1990 photograph of an actor/comedian in Mexico. Cast latex horns sprout from his head.
“What I told him was, ‘You are a god of nature’,” Witkin said. “It’s about nature and the mystery of nature.”
The photographer picked up his first camera at age 11 when he was growing up in Queens.
“It was instinctive,” he said. “I was an artist from the egg.”
“Las Meninas” echoes the original 1656 painting by Diego Velásquez, one of the most analyzed works in Western painting.
In Witkin’s version, a little girl with spina bifida helms the center, a skirt covering what would have been her legs above a wire cage. A Christ figure stands in a doorway.
“She has no legs,” he said. “The child was very beautiful. She can never touch the earth. So this is about suffering and immobility.”
“It’s about morality because each of us with every breath we take, we are deciding what to do,” he added.
Witkin first came to Albuquerque as part of his graduate degree program. In 1975, he moved here from an 11- by 22-foot New York apartment.
He met the great 20th century photographer Edward Steichen at what is now the Museum of Modern Art when he was a teenager. Witkin showed the legendary man his 20 best slides.
“He picked one for a show; it was called the ‘Masterpieces of the Museum’ collection,” Witkin said.
“He encouraged me,” Witkin said, adding “Oh, I get goosebumps,” rubbing his arms.
A roiling sea backdrop hangs from his studio wall, awaiting his latest composition, of a mermaid cradling a baby. He’s still working on the design.
“People are afraid of death; I can’t wait,” he said. “I’m not suicidal. But from a Catholic standpoint, if you live a good life, you’re going to spend an eternity with God. And that’s the big show.”