By: John Dorfman
The Journal of Joel-Peter Witkin
By Joel-Peter Witkin
21st Editions, $1,500/$9,500
An elaborately staged re-creation of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, with a little sexual mischief added. A lovely female centaur listening contemplatively as an equally lovely woman (the same woman?) plays the piano. A bare-breasted, though otherwise fully clad woman holding a palette and painting an Old Master-style portrait. A masked dwarf with a skull. And of course, because this is Joel-Peter Witkin, some severed human torsos blending in with assorted fragments of classical sculpture. These are among the images, extravagantly printed in platinum, that await the deep-pocketed purchaser of the latest limited-edition artist’s book from the presses of 21st Editions, The Journal of Joel-Peter Witkin.
The full complement of 15 platinum prints of Witkin’s latest cycle of work, signed by the artist, comes with the Deluxe Edition of 40 copies priced at $9,500 each, while the lower-priced Classic Edition, of which 135 copies are available for $1,500 apiece, features three signed prints. Both sets come in clamshell boxes and feature letterpress printing. The word portion of this rather astonishing experience is a facsimile of a journal Witkin kept, recording his thoughts about photography, storyboarding the sets and figures for his photographs and, like many another journal-keeper, pasting in clippings and jotting down favorite quotations.
While the death-and-religion-obsessed lensman might seem like an unlikely source for humor, Witkin’s selection of citations from others shows a keen wit at work: On one page, we have the sententious French public intellectual André Malraux saying, “Behind every artist you find the question, ‘What is Life, What does it mean?’” and on the opposite page, Woody Allen with, “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”
The more serious writings in Witkin’s journal do give real insight into the photography. “I want to penetrate rather than reproduce reality,” he writes, which alludes not only to the fantastic, surreal and dreamlike quality of his images but also to the undertone of sexuality and violence in them. And when he writes, “The language of photography must be painstakingly reinvented through the body, mind and soul of the photographer. This is how all art is made!” we sense the mystical impetus behind Witkin’s work, the artisan-like seriousness about detail and the feeling of connection to the whole sweep of art history.