by Phil Tarley
of a rock star photographer, uber hip, in an understated way. Dressed in a chartreuse puffer jacket, he flashes a full-mouthed, sexy set of expensive white teeth. He wears wildly trendy glasses and has a devilish sense of humor; full of funny quips that he doles out with cutting-edge insight. Jerome is more serious, thin and white, while tanned Joel-Peter can be deliciously Puckish. It’s hard to believe they are identical twins. The brothers, now, have a cordial, but distant relationship.
Jack: These are both artists who orchestrate composition. Both have an unfathomable visceral quality with a strong sense of gravitas, an element that seems to be missing in much of the work produced today. Their show is a privileged view you are allowed into that is evocative and that demands attention. It’s hard not to be familiar with Joel’s work. Joel is as much a painter as Jerome – utilizing photography as a medium, like a painter.
ON DEFINING MOMENTS
Joel-Peter: When I was six years old, we were living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was Sunday and we were home getting dressed for church. We heard this loud collision and when we ran outside, we saw a car crash and I watched a little girl’s head rolling in the street. When, later on, I wrote about that moment, I thought about the primordial aspects of life and death.
Jerome: When I was young and scruffy, my mother took me for my first visit to the Met. In a dark, out-of-the-way gallery, an old man came at me with a stick, poked me with it and said, “Dirty little boys like you should not be in museums like this.” From that moment on, I never doubted that we would have this life and that I would take my place in museums precisely like the one he poked me in.
Joel-Peter: When I was a teenager, I was in my first big show curated by Alfred Steichen at MOMA. When I brought my slides over for him to look at, he thought I was the messenger. I should have told him that I was the messenger.
Jerome: Identical twins are not very common in art history...but somehow we both punched through into becoming artists…I have to make art. I cannot help myself. I just have to do it. What drives us is that we have needs that have to be put down on photo paper and canvas.
Joel-Peter: I was in the Bowery once, downtown, in New York and I saw police cars in front of a movie theater. Then all these people came rushing out, so I decided to stick around and see what was happening. Suddenly the big bronze doors to the movie theater opened and the crowds in front parted. Out came a man being dragged by the cops on both sides. A giant smile was on his face and I couldn’t understand why the guy was smiling. Then he came closer and I saw that his jaw was dropping and had separated from his head. Someone had slashed his face from ear to ear. His entire lower face was hanging down…it had separated in a strange arc, that made his jaw drop in a giant smile.
Joel-Peter: I am very selective about the people I photograph. There are dead people and there are dead people. There are people on the slab that are fascinating and then there are others that are boring! If you are boring when you are dead, you really are a loser!
Jerome: Be bad. Be brave. Have a marvelous vision like Caravaggio. Be blinded by the possibilities that you have to go through, so that you can see.
Joel-Peter: I am a dramatist… I take the world and bring it to the studio, where I am creating a fiction… a narrative. Both our works are narrative, for me, and my brother. I get ideas…I make sketches and I can use them to change my concept before I finally put it together. The Raft of George Bush has 17 people in the shot. I like dealing with history. I use the historical continuum to serve as important milestones of our human experience. I really like history as subject matter and how it affects people today. Every age has its own consciousness and destiny, and its people live in an element that is honorable or dishonorable.
I don’t do objective work. I do subjective work. I have a degree in sculpture and that helps me to be able to understand and go beyond the medium. I want my work to be astonishing.
I start with a concept. I often have a title like The Busboy at the Last Supper. It’s a bust of a guy with curly hair lit theatrically with a tray around his neck with fruit, and a scarf draped over him. It’s going to be printed on aluminum, and then painted. All the elements are symbolic.
The production – because it is a production – is sometimes very simple, other times it’s elaborate. I keep it very open...depending on reality, which often brings something spectacular to it. I don’t shoot a lot. I see the print as I make the photos. I have everyone made up in white and the way I print the white shows up magically.
I often distress my negatives. I spend 50-70 percent of my time in the darkroom. I wear respirators. I deal with the papers, the chemistry, and then I work viscerally. The components...the optics…the chemicals…the people…I respect it all. I rely on phenomenal luck and destiny to make my work. It’s not a technical process. It’s emotional.
And it’s all a part of the magic. I have to know each and every millimeter of the work before I release it as done. I know what happens to silver, light and film, but it’s always a magical experience.
FACE OF A WOMAN
Jerome: Once you see Joel’s work, it s like a tattoo on your brain. Our work is overloaded in a time of the underload.
Joel-Peter: My thought on our conjoining is that we are both joyous romantics… In the end, I am as good as my last photograph. Life is transitory. And age is a very positive thing when you have something to say and the juices to express yourself.
Joel-Peter Witkin’s work resounds with an epic thematic quest. As fearless artist, seeker of spiritual beauty, sexual love and existential enlightenment, he has fashioned a numinous oeuvre of postmortem resurrections, one that also deifies the living before we each receive our coup de grace. When he speaks about his process, I find myself deeply moved by a new understanding of the man, his art and the possibilities of the photographic medium.
I ask Joel-Peter one last question: How would you like to be remembered? He thinks about it for an instant and flashes me an idiosyncratic Witkinesque smile.
“As a photographer who always went his own way and did what he had to do, and as an honest and caring man. I hope I photographed images that defined my world and my own vision of it.”