Joel-Peter Witkin – [↑] Poussin in Hell (1999); [←] Anna Akmatova (1998); [+] Nude with a Mask, LA (1988); [→] Still Life, Marseilles (1992) [↙] Glassman (1994); [↘] Naked Follow the Naked Christ, NYC (2006); [↓] Arm Fuck, NYC (1982)

I was in my final year as an undergraduate in an advanced philosophy course when I made a terrible mistake. I used the word ‘tautology’ in the context of something that was axiomatic instead of something that was redundant. Folks looked at me strangely and finally another classmate asked rhetorically whether or not I was aware that I had clearly no idea what a tautology was.

Joel-Peter Witkin is similar. For whatever reason: I’ve always associated him with Jerry Uelsmann’s seamless multiple negative fantasy landscapes.

But Witkin doesn’t really have anything in common with Uelsmann. He works with a single frame–frequently scratching the emulsion, obscuring his negatives with tissue paper when printing, defacing the film and smearing chemicals and lord knows what all else everywhere. He’s a bit like Bosch with a camera. He has a ridiculous familiarity with art history. (The proper way to introduce his work to me would’ve been to say: you know how much you love Mark Romanek’s work on // | /’s Closer video? Well, Romanek stole whole cloth, half of the visuals in that video from Witkin.)

Once I realized my mistake I dug into his work. There’s a lot of fine lines in his work–not just scratched into the negatives but conceptually. He’s a devout Catholic; also: a left-of-center Democrat. There’s a lot going on in the majority of his frames. Personally, I think that 65% of his stuff is overwrought to the point of sensory overload. When it works it’s unrivaled–a la Poussin in Hell. Mostly I prefer his less busy, more balanced compositions.

35% of his work is either too masterful or too audacious to ignore. (I’m not exactly on board with his politics and he’s not done a very good job of being sensitive to the marginalized communities he likes to depict.) And really there’s a lot of shit with his work that is not easily defensible. He’s borrowed Rhesus monkeys from animal testing labs to feature in questionable contexts within his work. (One of his most notorious photos straight up implies bestiality.)

Feeling stifled by the rules in the US against such thing, he spent time in Mexico during the early 90s photographing corpses. His exquisite Glassman was the pinnacle of that work. (I read this story before I ever say the photo, so I was never even a little put off by the work. I just think it’s brilliant.)

He’s certainly not the first artist to fixate upon cadavers. da Vinci gained a great deal of his anatomical acumen by dissecting human corpses. Then there’s Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes–which has always struck me as antipathic through and through. As well as the work Sally Mann did on her Body Farm series.

There are oodles of problematics and objections that can be pointed at Witkin’s work. I think a lot of that has been overlooked because the work has been seen as too irrevocably unpleasant. (A lot of the criticism of his work during the late 80s and early 90s involved objections along the lines that Art is meant to instruct and edify, whereas Witkin’s work vacillates between fomenting revulsion and focusing on visions of disquiet, alienation and brutality.

Perhaps he was merely 25 years ahead of the curve because this stuff feels of a piece with a lot of edgy, emerging internet art. I’m really sort of hoping this post will take off–in spite of my heavy handed prose.

Romy AlizéeJe sais que tu me regardes (2016)

Originally, my thought had been to post the above side by side with this image (by fuckingfilthyminds).

My interest was contrasting the degrees of abstraction vs contextual clarity in the two images. (The above is better, the linked image diminishes context in favor of both anonymity and to encourage an experiential POV perspective for the viewer–which makes the classic cishet mistake of assuming the entire rest of the world is straight like you.)

The linked image is technically superior–the flash above isn’t overexposed in the foreground and almost over-exposed against the white wall in the background but at the same time there’s no texture whatsover in the cushions on the couch. I’d give it a pass except the way that her head bleeds out into the cushions in a way that’s just sloppy.

Unfortunately, the other blog is fairly clear about their desire not to have the images copied and posted. And the image I wanted to post is at the tail end of a post where the quality of the images is just inexcusably and narcissistically bad.

Morgan Gwenwald – Untitled (1992)

All I’ve been able to learn about Gwenwald is that she was a photographer active in NYC primarily during the late-70s and throughout the 80s.

Most of her work appears to be documentary in nature. (The most comprehensive collection can be accessed via the Lesbian Herstory Archives.)

However, it seems that she was also very active in efforts to reappropriate depictions of the vulva from mainstream pornography. There’s mention in a couple of places about a notable image entitled Incorrect View of the Beloved. ( can’t actually find an example of it online, but there is a reasonably specific description here.)

Source unknown – Title Unknown (19XX)

This reminds me of both Man Ray’s pornographic self-portraits with Kiki De Montparnasse and Hans Bellmer’s test photos for the cover of L’histoire de l’oeil.

But it mirrors (along a vertical axis) the infamous Mapplethorpe photograph.

I’m fairly certain this post-dates the first two and predates the latter. As much as I admire Bellmer’s audacity in presenting the extremity of sexuality without ever losing site of the hunger for physical pleasure that motivates it and how much the clean minimial aesthetic of Mapplethorpe’s image speaks to me, I think this may be if not the better image out of the aforementioned cohort, it is the most interesting.

There’s a way in which it contradicts itself. The intimacy of the extreme and extremely graphic close up with the bracelet dangling from the wrist–at once both private (an intimate document) and public (a jewelry advert). There’s the way the hand on the left hand on the leg can be seen bracing with an implicit violence to administer greater force or a calming/reassuring means of facilitating connection through an intense physical experience.