History of Photography

History of Photography

A World History of Photography

The Story Behind the Pictures 1827-1991

Photographers' Dictionary





1   Nicephore Niepce. View from the Study Window, 1827

2   Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre. Boulevard du Temple, 1838

3   Eugene Durieu/Eugene Delacroix. Nude from Behind, ca. 1853

4   Duchenne de Boulogne. Contractions musculaires, 1856

5   Auguste Rosalie Bisson. The Ascent of Mont Blanc, 1862

6   Nadar. Sarah Bernhardt, ca. 1864

7   Francois Aubert. Emperor Maximilian's Shirt, 1867

8   Andre Adolphe Eugene Disderi. Dead Communards, 1871

9   Maurice Guibert. Toulouse-Lautrec in His Studio, ca. 1894

10 Max Priester/Willy Wilcke. Bismarck on his Deathbed, 1898

11 Heinrich Zille. The Wood Gatherers, 1898

12 Alfred Stieglitz. The Steerage, 1907

13 Lewis Hine. Girl Worker in a Carolina Cotton Mill, 1908

14 August Sander. Young Farmers, 1914

15 Paul Strand. Blind Woman, 1916

16 Man Ray. Noire et blanche, 1926

17 Andre Kertesz. Meudon, 1928

18 Robert Capa. Spanish Loyalist, 1936

19 Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

20 Horst P. Horst. Mainbocher Corset, 1939

21 Henri Cartier-Bresson. Germany, 1945

22 Richard Petersen. View from the Dresden City Hall Tower, 1945

23 Robert Doisneau. The Kiss in Front of City Hall, 1950

24 Dennis Stock. James Dean on Times Square, 1955

25 Bert Stern. Marilyn's Last Sitting, 1962

26 Gerard Malanga. Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, 1966

27 Helmut Newton. They're Coming!, 1981

28 Sandy Skoglund. Revenge of the Goldfish, 1981

29 Robert Mapplethorpe. Lisa Lyon, 1982

30 Joel-Peter Witkin. Un Santo Oscuro, 1987

31 Sebastiao Salgado. Kuwait, 1991


see also:


Chapter 30 (part I)



Joel-Peter Witkin


Un Santo Oscuro

A Martyr of Life

Some see his bizarre allegories as the quintessence of western decadence and moral decline; others compare him to Goya or call him the Hieronymous Bosch of photography. No other photographer of our age has polarized both art critics and the general public more than the American artist Joel-Peter Witkin.


Taken unaware, the unprepared gaze finds itself looking at what seems quite unbelievable. What are we looking at? A man? A human figure? Or simply a masquerade? A nightmare from another age, or perhaps an image created by contemporary Postmodernism? The uncertainties are multi-layered, resulting in alienation coupled with curiosity and a vague sense of horror.

As a rule, we are able to assign a photographic image spontaneously and confidently to a certain time frame or epoch - the nineteenth or early twentieth century, the 1950s, or a more recent date. This picture, how-ever, seems to want to withdraw grotesquely from all temporal parameters. On the one hand, the observer has the impression that the image stems from a strange, sinister world, which has somehow left its traces on the photograph as it journeyed to the present: spots, scratches, a leap', such as one identifies with the age of the glass negative. On the other hand, the prosthesis, at least, points to the late twentieth century. Ergo, a digitally created horror vision, using the most modern technology to present a stifling variation of St. Sebastian, pierced with arrows - an image which has been a part of Christian art since the Renaissance and Baroque?

Joel-Peter Witkin
Un Santo Oscuro


Incredible even to more tolerant contemporaries


To set matters straight right from the start: the American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin does not work with a computer, but with traditional photographic means. A twin-lens Rolleifiex vintage 1960 remains his camera of choice; he uses conventional roll film, and rarely shoots more than two frames per motif. And nor does he make collages or montages. The sole way in which he distances himself from the normal photography that takes 'straight' shots of its subjects is the way he works the negative -but more on that later. And, of course, by the way he creates scenes, a process in which he does not simply take the world as seen through the viewer, but creates rather a universe according to his pre-formulated ideas, visions, and fantasies - a cosmos rich with allusion, references, quotations - whose 'inhabitants' Witkin discovers in those places from which the proponents of more conventional ideals of beauty normally shy. And what is he interested in? Witkin unashamedly calls a spade a spade, and lists: freaks of every kind, idiots, dwarves, giants, deformations, pre-op trans-sexuals ... All the people who were born without arms, legs, eyes, breasts, genitals, ears, noses, lips. All those with unusually large genitals, dominas and slaves...Recently, Witkin has added dismembered bits of corpses to his list, which he arranges in the manner of seventeenth-century Flemish still lifes - an approach which must seem incredible even to his more tolerant contemporaries - and which especially in the USA has repeatedly stirred up the ire of district attorneys and self-appointed cultural censors. Without a doubt, Joel-Peter Witkin is one of the most controversial artists of his time. But where fundamentalist preachers stamp him as a monster in front of millions of TV viewers, the art world has come to recognize him as one of the most original and pro-found of contemporary artists. Accordingly, the prices of his limited editions, rarely consisting of more than a dozen prints, are the highest that Postmodern photography commands.

Joel-Peter Witkin:
sketch for Un Santo Oscuro


The extraordinary as part of everyday life


Anyone who looks will find that Witkin's biography gives more than enough evidence for what at first glance seems to be a morbid obsession, but which is in fact nothing more than an attempt to examine the basis of earthly existence, to take issue with categories of norms and deviations, to transgress boundaries with open eyes, in order to discover pictorially what Witkin likes to term the 'divine'. As a child, equipped with a used Rolleicord, he once tried to photograph God: someone had told him of a rabbi who had seen God. Witkin visited the rabbi, but God remained invisible. Where was Cod to be found, he asked himself. In people, as the Christian message teaches? And if so, then in which people? Might it not be that God reveals himself in a special way precisely thorough those beings who are clearly different from the majority bodily or mentally? It is, in fact, philosophical-religious reflections like these which lie at the core of Joel-Peter Witkin's ceuvre. Witkin was born in Brooklyn in 1939 as the son of poor immigrants. His father was an Orthodox Russian Jew, his mother an Italian with strong Catholic beliefs - differences that were to become the primary reason for the couple's separation. Joel-Peter and his twin brothers were raised by his mother and his grandmother. "My grandmother had only one leg," Witkin recalls, "and in the morning I would wake up and smell her gangrenous leg. Where most kids would wake up and smell coffee, I would wake up and smell grandmother's rotting leg." Witkin thus became early acquainted with the strange, and the extraordinary became a natural part of everyday life. He learned to accept illness and suffering in life, of which death was also necessarily a part, even if the thought is often suppressed. "My first conscious recollection occurred when I was 6 years old. 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 through the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident had 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 ask it - but before I could touch it - someone carried me away."

Joel-Peter Witkin
 Leda, Los Angeles



His own world of personal fantasies


Already at age sixteen, Joel-Peter Witkin began taking a serious interest in photography. At the Museum of Modern Art, he introduced himself to Edward Steichen, who in fact accepted one of his pictures into the permanent exhibit. This experience motivated him to become a photographer. Witkin made a trek to Coney Island, where a freak show particularly caught his interest. He photographed the three-legged man, the 'Chicken Lady', and the hermaphrodite, with whom he claimed he had his first sexual experience. The freak show became his "home", the true environment where his lively fantasies could play themselves out. Unfortunately, they didn't need a photographer, and nor was he a freak, for otherwise Witkin would have gone on the road with them. So he remained in New York and worked in commercial studios, while at home he began to create my own world of personal fantasies that he could photograph. Witkin was drafted into the army in 1961, where he documented accidents that occurred on maneuver - and the fatalities they sometimes resulted in. He volunteered for Vietnam, attempted suicide, and was released from the army. He then took up studies at the Cooper Union School in New York, switching later to the University of New Mexico, where he graduated in 1981 with a Master of Fine Arts degree. By 1980, with his first one-man show curated by Sam Wagstaff in New York, Witkin became the object of passionate and controversial discussion.

Joel-Peter Witkin
Poet: from a collection of relics and ornaments, Berlin, 1986


Christian taboos of Eros and the body


"Witkin's philosophical/spiritual beliefs," according to Hai Fisher, "are exceptionally complex, a not particularly decipherable synthesis of Jewish cabalistic thought, Roman Catholic practice, Eastern philosophy and 1960s counterculture consciousness." Last but not least, Witkin's work can be read as an artistic revolt against both traditional Jewish iconoclasm and the Christian taboos of Eros and the body. Witkin mistrusts established norms and places them consciously in question. He even uses his own medium 'against the grain': for Witkin, recognition and understanding do not grow out of the mere duplication of reality, but only from the creation of an artificial world at whose center hermaphrodites, dwarves, cripples, Siamese twins, and amputees function as the catalysts of an expanded spiritual horizon. Probably the most common protest against Witkin's photography is that he misuses the handicapped to create a macabre spectacle. Jackie Tellafian, New York theatrical agent and lead actress in Witkin's Woman in the Blue Hat (1985), who is herself con¬fined to a wheelchair, reacted to these charges saying: "I've had many people say: 'Didn't you feel exploited by that?' and I always said no, because first of all he never made me feel as though he was using my disability as a sensational aspect in the picture."

Others have also reacted in a similar manner, openly speaking of the humane manner in which Witkin treats them, how he makes them into the subject of his art, and thereby open to public view with full dignity, in contrast to the society which had hidden them away and pushed them aside. And in fact, in Witkin's photographic creations, deficiencies acquire a metaphysical power. "The formless and misshapen, the lowly and that which causes shudders are brought back into the light" (Germano Celant).

Created in 1987, Un Santo Oscuro exemplifies Witkin's artistic approach. As so often, also in this case, it was a person with a physical handicap who inspired the photograph. Friends had told him about a man in a wheelchair who lacked a face and arms. On the spur of the moment, Wit-kin made a first draft - a scribble or sketch - of an idea. But where in Los Angeles could he possibly find the man? "With my friend," Wirkin recalls, "we went down to the area where we thought he lived. There was an old run-down hotel, and when we got inside we finally saw him, because the door was open on the room he lived in. He was asleep. What we saw was this kind of plastic head, this little body, and we didn't want to disturb him. It was our conviction that we had to wait for other people to arrive, and sure enough they did. Two men actually arrived to take care of him. We got into the room and talked. We found out from our conversation that this man was a Thalidomide victim. He was Canadian. His mother took Thalidomide, and he was born without skin, without arms or legs, without hair, eyelashes or eyelids. Early on, from the time he was a child, he was the subject of ridicule and curiosity and wanted by side-shows and freak-shows. I talked about how I wanted to photograph him. I wanted to photograph him as clerics would have been depicted, mostly in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Spain, as martyrs, and I told this man that he was a martyr to life."

Joel-Peter Witkin
Courbet in Rejiander's Pool 1985


A popular subject for religious painting commissions


Joel-Peter Witkin's photographs are the result of elaborate staging in the studio, during which an interior image, a vision, finds its outward expression. Often works of the great masters - Velasquez, Cimabue, Giotto, Rembrandt, Arcimboldo, Picasso, Goya, Delacroix - stand at the start of Witkin's artistic creations. Without hesitation, he reaches back to myths, fairy tales, the traditions of western art history, all of which he seems to know well. The titles of works like Sander's Wife, Courbet in Rejiander's Pool, or Von Gioeden in Asia make the sources of his inspiration clear. In addition to painting and graphics, the photography of Ernest James Bellocq, Eadweard J. Muybridge, and Charles Negre also provided stimulation. Un Santo Oscuro, however, does not draw from a particular individual picture, but rather from a pictorial genre that was a popular subject for religious painting commissions, in particular during the Spanish Baroque. Priests appeared in the pose of honored saints in order to increase their own power by association, their social position, and their clerical aura. What remained a mere travesty, however, in the historical panel painting, Witkin creates from real earthly torture. "Instead of a voluntary, playful masochism, Witkin cites real pain" (Chris Townsend).

Joel-Peter Witkin
Studio of the painter-Courbet


The darkroom becomes a kind of holy house


Witkin may arrange his scenes, but he does not manipulate his pictures. The photographs are called into being without any technical tricks; they are therefore 'straight'. All the elements of the given scene are components of an often slowly and painstakingly arranged ensemble. Only later is the negative reworked to acquire the patina that gives Witkin's pictures the aura of being withdrawn from time. In the author's own description, he becomes a kind of priest of aesthetics. "I work alone during printing and begin by communicating with my equipment and chemistry, thanking them in advance. I place a negative in the enlarger and the darkroom becomes a kind of holy house, a refuge for phenomena..." By changing the texture of the picture, Witkin effectively moves it in time and space. As if through a hidden crack, we catch a glimpse into a strange cabinet. Witkin's pictures, as the writer Ludwig Fels states, are "Witnesses of a profound spirituality that creates from archaic sources." Witkin's art takes up the basic categories of human existence: love and pain, joy and suffering, Eros and Thanatos. He is the philosopher among the photographers of our ase.



Joel-Peter Witkin

Joel-Peter Witkin (born September 13, 1939, in Brooklyn, New York City) is an American photographer.
Witkin was born to a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother. He has a twin brother, Jerome Witkin, who also plays a significant role in the art world for his realistic paintings. Witkin's parents divorced when Witkin was young because they were unable to transcend their religious differences. He attended grammar school at Saint Cecelia's in Brooklyn and went on to Grover Cleveland High School. He worked as war photographer between 1961 and 1964 during the Vietnam war. In 1967, he decided to work as a freelance photographer and became City Walls Inc. official photographer. Later, he attended Cooper Union in New York where he studied sculpture and became Bachelor of Arts in 1974. After the Columbia University granted him a scholarship, he ended his studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he became Master of Fine Arts.
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."

He also claims that the difficulties in his family were an influence for his work too. His favourite artist is Giotto, but the most obvious artistic influences on his work are Surrealism (particularly Max Ernst) and Baroque art. His photographic techniques draw on early Daguerreotypes and on the work of E. J. Bellocq.
His work often deals with such themes as death, corpses (or pieces of them), and various outsiders such as dwarfs, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and physically deformed people. His complex tableaux often recall religious episodes or famous classical paintings. Because of the transgressive nature of the contents of his pictures, his works have been labeled exploitative and have sometimes shocked public opinion. His art was often marginalized because of this challenging aspect.
He employs a highly intuitive approach to the physical process of making the photograph, including scratching the negative, bleaching or toning the print, and an actual hands-in-the-chemicals printing technique. This experimentation began after seeing a 19th-century ambrotype of a woman and her ex-lover who had been scratched from the frame.














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