Portrait by Ons Abid
In conversation that weaves back and forth between politics, religion, art, and history, Joel Peter Witkin elucidates some of the fascinating paradoxes surrounding his photography. Resolving images, art as incarnation,wisdom gained from odd jobs, the New York art scene, opinions on abortion - this wide range of subjects all merge together as Witkin sat down with us after a lecture at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Bnf) in Paris.
“The negative is a beginning point for me.”
In your work, you’ve explored “freaks,” religion and art history influences. What connections have you found?
First, I’m not comfortable with the title “freaks.” It’s a terrible, sensationalistic term. Thank God there are no more Freak Shows. When I was in my teens, I would go to Conny Island with my brother to photograph people. The barker, the man that tries to get people in the show, was telling a lot of the people, “Unless you live good lives, your children are going to look like the people in here.” It was a cruel, stupid, primitive thing to say.
I can’t be cornered, like many artists – there is no A, B, C, D, to my work. Some artists deal in cyclical things, but for me, it’s never been that clear, because I photograph people who all have different characteristics and consciousness. I never know who I’m going to meet. I work with those people - I don’t use them. The same thing applies to human remains or inanimate objects.
My work isn’t linear; it’s more of a phenomenology.