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Collector's Corner

Meeting with Joel-Peter Witkin at Baudoin Lebon Gallery, Paris

Joel Peter Witkin is an artist who presents his visions as photographs. He works in many countries, creating images which challenge our concepts of beauty and meaning. Living and working in the orbits of the profane and the sacred, Witkin engages existences of a nun with a transsexual, the resurrecting Christ with a Degas nude. Some of Witkin’s images are presented in the present, the future and in places of imagined mystery. Joel-Peter Witkin finds inspiration in human and aesthetic history, showing its fantasy, madness and existential questioning.

There is always humour present along with the splendor and misery of existence.The Fly is a poem of love andsensuality – a blind Orion with breasts. Taking pederast martyrs and flesh of our souls, Witkin’s photographs challenge the condition and fate of human-kind.”


Joel-Peter Witkin presented us his latest pieces at the Gallery, in Paris.  It was the opportunity for him to explain the place of writing in the process of creation and how he began to create his retablos.




Hold Up Photo: In your latest exhibition « Counterfactuals », we can discover that you took a new direction by associating text and image. Can you tell us more about this new way of expression ?


JP Witkin : It cames about two different facts. First, when I was in New York I was on a fellowship to Colombia University in writing, I’ve always written. Actually, when I get a concept, for a photograph, it usually comes from something immediately visual or something I’ve red from a book. Then, I readjust, I reinterpret. Second, a couple years ago, I came across a Actes Sud book and it was about retablos. But in the book itself it had not only the retablos that people had seen for centuries, farmers having accidents, buildings in fire, there were more contemporary aspects about people having affairs, homosexuals love making. These people as the generations before had a prayer and a sit to a retablo maker, retablito. They describe the circumstances and the painter will make the painting, a description of the event and at the bottom would be the verbal of prayer. I’ve seen many of these and I’ve collected them in my travels through Mexico and South America, but when I got this book from Actes Sud was published in France, I said to myself it makes total sense. I am going to take one this stories and make my own retablo.

Retablo, New Mexico, 2007 © JP Witkin, courtesy Baudoin Lebon Paris


JP Witkin : I used two models, originally there were two models, one named Victoria she had a prayer to Saint Sebastian thanking him for the love that now they can be living together and they’re happy.  To me it was a very distinct association and a break with Catholicism. I made this image called Retablo. I had one model this magnificently beautiful woman and another model. I got an email from a university instructor professor in the south of the USA saying that she has always loved my work. She was born without arms, legs or a jaw. She said that she would be happy to be send me photographs of herself and she did. I said that you’ll be perfect for this and she agreed to be photographed. I just discussed this on the phone and through email. I paid for her trip and she came with her husband and I put them up at a hotel. The shoot set up was made and it took about one mouth to make the painting. It was actually here in my last show.


Priest Pederast, Bogota 2009 © JP Witkin, courtesy Baudoin Lebon Paris


JP Witkin : Here, in a more recent trip last year, I made 6 photographs. Years ago for some reasons, I’ve this idea of making a mask for a dog. In Albuquerque, I worked with a Japanese she is a seamstress, wonderful, Meriko.  I told her to make a mask I gave her the proportions. She made it for me and there strings between the ears because they felt back. I brought this to Bogotà. I said it would be great to put this on a dog. And the first person I’ve visited who is the lover of my the translator, she is a seamstress, a designer clothing and she has a dog that I knew that it fits the mask. And it was perfect. I had this idea of the pederasts wearing the same hat I bought in Paris. I brought this background of Léger and different backgrounds. I photographed this on a rooftop. This man is a writer, a Muslim and I told him he will be a pederast. This man was the cousin of my translator. He was living in France for a few years, he knew my work and I told him that he will be a kind of Christ victim. I photographed this with one roller film 6 by 7, in a roof top we were in a city but we were very isolated, the light was very soft. In my work, I like to show the construction.  


The Fly, 2009 © JP Witkin, courtesy Baudoin Lebon Paris


JP Witkin : This is the first photograph I made this strip and I brought with me to Bogotà this mask and this mask represents a kind of insect. I wanted to get a woman with perfect little breasts. She was the lover of one of my translator and she has perfect breast. I worked with a make up artist and he drew these circles, which are very nice. I made these wings there. I put a mask on her. I put a collage of fabric in the background.  The rest is what I do in printing, I made this lines happened, I print through glass. It is called Retrato de un mosca, portrait of a fly. But, then I got this idea and wrote this little kind of a poem and this finished the photograph. 


Madame Jeanne, 2009 © JP Witkin, courtesy Baudoin Lebon Paris


JP Witkin : I went with my translator on this Avenida Santa Fe, the street of prostitution in the daytime. Those women prostitute themselves and make sex for 2 or 3 dollars.  This woman, I liked her face a lot, I liked her character. She was a prostitute for over 20 years and she just retired the week I made this photograph. I’ve gone back and measure her chest, measured her shoulders, i  brought electric wire and seeds I found outside, a part of a toy,  I brought this dead bird with me from Albuquerque, I’ve really had the idea in mind. And I brought this fabric from Paris. I made the make up in a certain way, I love this 20’s lips. I had this wig made very cheap. Then I reverse the negative because I really wanted to change her face. The cropping is very severe which I loved. I wrote this kind of a story. It is a fairy tale but it is a tragedy about incest and love and confused love. It is the same thing for the Priest Pederasts.


Two prostitutes adoring the Virgin (masked), 2009  © JP Witkin, courtesy Baudoin Lebon Paris.


JP Witkin : Here I wanted to use three prostitutes as the graces but the senior prostitute never show up. The background took a month to be made in Albuquerque. Actually, these are two different paintings which refer to Picasso. These prostitutes are so forgetful:  because they live on drugs. I had two social workers who were with us, who know the prostitutes, who picked them up by cabs and bring them in the store. All three of them were made up. In the middle, the woman is not a prostitute. She is a very beautiful six foots tall graphic designer. I met her a few days before the shoot and I convinced her to please been photographed. She said do not show my vagina and do not show my breasts. I said yes to her conditions you can be the virgin. I made this hats during one week, I put mask on her. To separate her from people seeing this image back in Bogotà, she is not a prostitute but the masked Virgin. What is so great about this two women I explain to my translator that the title is “Two prostitutes adoring the Virgin”. I position them in a pose very similar to Canova sculpture. And of course it was changed because they are living and they have this flourless dimension, they have the light dimension. She is looking at them with a kind of knowledge of their belief and unbelief, of their security, their love and confused love. For me this photograph is very telling. It shows the age of the women, the changes in women the presentation of women’s body. I like especially we put so much make up on them and the make up started to crack.  I shoot this photo by a 6 by 7 camera and it is a very large enlargement.


 White on white, 2009 © JP Witkin, courtesy Baudoin Lebon Paris.


I did this in Paris in 2009. The woman worked at the Gallery. She was here for the opening yesterday her name is Amélie, she is so beautiful, she has a quietness. I used a Rollerflex very low so that she makes her look wider but she’s not so wide. It started off a few blocks from here, there is plant store and I saw this very complex plant with maybe 5 or 6 hundred leaves. What I wanted to do is create putting this leaves on a woman in white make up and believe that coming up from her body. I got an arrangement with the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris, I got these birds, nineteen century birds beautifully done. I rented this chair but it is such an expensive chair. They said if  I put make up on the chair, the chair is yours so I put a bed sheet on it. It is about quietude. What made me choose this negative is the fact that at this particular juncture the leaves were determining the shape of her nose and face. She had moved her eye a little bit, and the eye was a kind of blurry and I love that. I mean to make that happened in the print would be a lot of work When I made the contact prints I knew this was it because she is not just thoughtful but she is in a kind of sublime repose. This is very different from my work. I mean I think the work is more poetic more languish on the quality and the beauty of the models which I’ve never done before.

Paris 18th april, 2010

Interview by Aurélien Bassemayousse


Galerie Baudoin Lebon presents 17 large size prints, always printed by Joel Peter Witkin along with four preparatory drawings. Counterfactuals, exhibition from April 16th to June 19th 2010.


Special thanks to Donatella Maroni from Baudoin Lebon Gallery and Joel-Peter Witkin.