Memento Mori- Responses in contemporary photography

As the common practice of post-mortem photography in North America and Western Europe has largely ceased, the portrayal of such images has become increasing seen as vulgar, sensationalistic and taboo. This is in marked contrast to the beauty and sensitivity perceived in the older tradition, indicating a cultural shift that may reflect wider social discomfort with death. Notably, however, the photographs of a number of contemporary artists imply a dialogue that helps illuminate the intent of the early works, one photography that deals largely with the theme of dead that i want to touch on today is Joel- Peter Witkin, a photography from Mexico who reduces corpses to props in his macabre tableaux.

Witkin is a photographer and artist who was born in Brooklyn, New York, 1939.

His twin brother, Jerome, is a well known artist as well, but chose painting as his medium of expression. Few, if any, people ever gaze upon a Witkin tableaux without strong reactions. He’s been lauded as depraved, perverted, mentally disturbed; while others hail his work as divine, fearless and completely unique.

For three years he was a war photographer during the Vietnam war, later becoming the official photographer in 1967 for City Walls Inc. After studying sculpture at Cooper Union in New York, he became Bachelor of Arts in 1974. Due, in part, to a scholarship from Columbia University, he became Master of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico.

Witkin claims that his vision and sensibility were initiated by an episode he witnessed when he was just a small child, a car accident that occurred in front of his house in which a little girl was decapitated

“It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. While walking down the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming 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. At the place where I stood at the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I bent down to touch the face, to speak to it — but before I could touch it someone carried me away”

Subsequently, a large portion of his art deals with scenes of death and deformity. Some of his most controversial work includes actual corpses and cadavers (or pieces of them). Because of specific laws within the U.S., he was forced to create these pieces in Mexico.

Other themes and subjects in his art include dwarfs, hermaphrodites, hunchbacks, and various physical deformities–as well as images that suggest bestiality, although never crossing that particular line. Much of his work hearkens back, or pays tribute to, famous classical paintings, mythology, and religious episodes throughout history.

Witkin creates his highly complex pieces using a variety of techniques. Some of these include scratching the negative, bleaching, toning the print, and what’s called a hands-in-the-chemicals approach. He also employs the use of razor blades, pins, and other implements in the darkroom to achieve the final look.

While viewing Joel’s art, a paradox often emerges as to what his “message” or intent actually is. Conflicting and seemingly unrelated objects and scenarios are conjoined in such a way as to appear to make sense. But as soon as one begins to form into words what that relationship is, it all falls apart, defying a rational explanation.

Witkin not only transcends categories, he does not even exist in one. He is outside of the box, and we, the viewers, are only allowed a peak, however briefly.

Joel-Peter Witkin has been called ‘part Hieronymous Bosch, part Chainsaw Massacre.’
His photographic tableaux, carefully arranged and painstakingly printed, offer us the chance to transcend subject matter, and enter what Witkin calls a world of ‘love and redemption’.”

Somewhere between depraved and divine, Joel-Peter Witkin has created a space that’s occupied by no other living photographer. His latest book, The Bone House, documents his progression from child photographer to where he stands alone today. Heady words, true, but deserved. Joel-Peter Witkin is a fearless image-maker.

What distinguishes Joel-Peter Witkin from his contemporaries is a restlessness and desire that leads him to places others fear –the dark side where every glimmer of light is authentic. His milieu is nothing short of the greatest mystery that’s occupied humanity since its very beginnings, the ultimate question of life and death –questions that by their very nature are ultimately unanswerable, except in those personal, brief, and experiential moments when art bridges the gap between the senses and the intellect. No one occupies this ground better than Witkin

If all creation can be said to be godlike, then the creation of these images assumes a spiritual quality most readily sensed in Witkin’s images that use cadavers and body parts. Witkin, in photographing the dead, brings their quickening essence once again to movement and expression, takes what we would ordinarily dismiss as the past, and enlivens it. In this way, what these cadavers achieve is nothing short of a new life, another chance to commune with the living, and even more striking, a chance for the living to commune with the dead.

If all creation can be said to be godlike, then the creation of these images assumes a spiritual quality most readily sensed in Witkin’s images that use cadavers and body parts. Witkin, in photographing the dead, brings their quickening essence once again to movement and expression, takes what we would ordinarily dismiss as the past, and enlivens it. In this way, what these cadavers achieve is nothing short of a new life, another chance to commune with the living, and even more striking, a chance for the living to commune with the dead.

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