Interview with Joel-Peter Witkin

Joel-Peter Witkin is one of the most respected and innovative fine art photographers of the last fifty years. His identical brother, Jerome Witkin, is an equally renowned and established painter. For the first time ever, they are having a joint exhibition, Twin Visions, at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery in Los Angeles.  I had the good fortune to talk to both brothers.

PART 1: Interview with Joel-Peter Witkin

Poussin in Hell, 1999

You were a war photographer in Vietnam? What was that like? Scary?

During my three years of military service, I never went to Vietnam. I worked as a photographer at Fort Hood, Texas and was stationed in Germany. That misinformation began in 1995 at my retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. The wallage (information written on the museum wall) stated that I was a combat photographer in Vietnam.  I was furious that I did not receive advanced notice of this statement. I would have corrected it, of course.

How did you decide to become a narrative fine art photographer? What led to the transition into that?

I have been making photographs since I was eleven years old. When I was sixteen, Edward Steichen, Director of Photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art chose one of my photographs for its permanent collection. After completing high school, I worked in different photographic studios and laboratories, and then enlisted in the army as a photographer.

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After my service, I graduated from the Cooper Union and received a Fellowship in poetry from Columbia University. I always created photographs during this time. In 1970, John Szarkowski, the Director of Photography at MOMA chose my work for its permanent collection. And so I kept creating and expanding my photographic vision.

Then in 1975, I was accepted to do graduate work at the University of New Mexico. In those years, I created totally realized and mature works. Then I began exhibiting in the New York and Paris galleries.

One of you favorite artist is Giotto. I lived in Padua as a University exchange student years ago [where Giotto’s most important works are]. Why Giotto? You don’t hear him mentioned much these days!

We now live in an escapist, consumer society in which the passions of intellect, social history, theology, philosophy and art history are dismissed in the prevailing Post-Modern mind set—and we are all the poorer for it.

Giotto is the father of Western painting. His genius gave us a narrative of true and deep emotion, of spatial and formal truth rendered in paint. There have always been great artists, then and now. But if you study art history, you will realize that there have been very few great artists working in any period of time, including our own time.

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Is it hard being a fine art photographer? What are the high and lows of the career?

It’s a struggle and a great wonderment to be an artist. Very few will make real and lasting contributions to humanity. The ones who try to create an original and universal vision over time, through great effort of talent and courage, will become connoisseurs of art and of life. But that still doesn’t guarantee that their work will last. That is the great mystery of art.

Would you say you are a surrealist artist?  Who are your favorite surrealists painters?

I am not a surrealist because I do not believe in what they, as a school of art, believed in. In fact, I belong to no movement or school except my own form of photography.

 Las Meninas, NM, 1987

You earned both a BFA from the Cooper Union in New York, and later an MFA from the University of New Mexico. What did you learn most from art school, and how has that informed your works?

What I have learned in art school is that art cannot be taught. You can learn techniques, but no teacher or school can make an artist. That comes from the deepest self. That comes from long battles with your ego and the honest reshaping of your consciousness.

Who are your favorite photographers from the past or present era?

I met Weegee and Cartier-Bresson. I knew Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. They, along with Daguerre, Fenton, Le Gray, Gardner, Cameron, Stieglitz, Atget, August Sander, Hans Bellmer, Walker Evans, Josef Sudek, Andre Kertesz and Harry Callahan are icons of photography for their entire bodies or work. 

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What inspires you? Where do you get your ideas?

Great acts of life and of love made through unselfishness inspire me because they illuminate our minds and souls. Ideas come to me every day. I make drawings of them. Then I edit them to see what will make a great photographic experience.How often do you shoot? Do you work in series, or just random ideas and images?

 I create ten to twelve photographs a year. I don’t work in series. I work with one part-time helper. The Raft of George W. Bush, NM, 2006

What camera are you shooting with now and in the past? Have you explored working with digital?

I have always used a Rolliflex (1957), a Linhoff 4×5 and a Pentax 6×7. I have recently worked with digital retouching in several of my works. I have no problem with that because I create visual fiction. After scanning, I receive an 8”x10″ photographic negative which I then print from. I always print my own work.

Do you ever get any complaints or objections to your controversial works?  Does it bother you?

I have received greatly positive and negative reviews. Throughout history you find that all important artists, whose work has lasted through time, were loved as well as despised.

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You are identical twins with the painter Joel Witkin. What has the relationship been like over the years, and has the recent exhibition changed anything? Are you pleased with this exhibition?

My brother and I have led very separate lives but we care for each other and follow each other’s work. Our exhibition at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts in Los Angeles has brought us closer. We are both very, very pleased with that exhibition.

You now live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. How did you end up there, and how do you like it?

I have been living in Albuquerque for almost forty years. I would not live anywhere else. 

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What are you plans for the future and how do you want to be remembered?

I never have plans for the future. I only have plans for future work. I make photographs to see what is inside me. What I create shows my growth as a human being, an artist and a soul. I would like to be remembered as an icon of photography whose work established a creative, intellectual and moral standard.

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Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery

Joel-Peter Witkin Wikipedia

PART 2 coming soon: Interview with painter Jerome Witkin.

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