'Tell me the story about the
Man Without the Head.'
'Without saying where it was made because that is really not important,
it's done, it's a fact, being a photograph. I was called in the middle
of the night, they had a body that looked very interesting. I knew the
doctor from the facility and he said to me "You may be interested
in looking at this corpse, because we had to remove the head in which
the brain was removed." I got to the facility with the translator
and noticed that the corpse was a very large man, about 6 foot three,
he reminded me of my father, the same body type. At the time I was overwhelmed
with the possibility of making something, and I was hoping against hope
that the body was still loose enough to be able to seat itself down on
a large chair. I constantly say 'it' because 'it' is inanimate.
The soul is gone but the spirit is still there. By that I mean the evidence
is still there, the defined spirit of who that person was.
It took three people to get him on the chair, it was a dead drunken weight,
he was basically falling, there was blood from the neck, falling on the
ground. I had to pick him up and work with him directly because as I posed
his hands I achieved a balance.
The balance between gravity, the balance between death and life. I representing
life and he representing the shadow of his former life. It's a portrait
of a non-portrait, and that is what makes it so good, because it is a
portrait where you don't see his face and yet it has all the ecutrement
of a formal portrait. He is wearing socks because that is a tradition
in some Mediterranean countries of giving comfort to the dead.
Your work has changed recently. Is that because last year you underwent
dramatic heartsurgery, and now you've become more reflective or even softer
in your approach?
"Last year I went through open heart surgery. It left me with this
scar down my chest and indeed with an outlook that my life had come closer
to death. Last year I astounded myself at the fact that I only made one
photograph the whole year!
I have been commissioned to go down to the Canary Islands in July to make
a photograph for an exhibition on consignment for a museum on one of the
islands. This particular museum is doing a show about the history of the
island and have asked some photographers to come down and do some contemporary
work there. The people organising the show faxed me and told me that anything
I want to do is possible. Due to the fact that I've never worked with
prostitutes before, this is what I want to do there. I want to do a series
of nudes, taken from the back, and what interests me is that on those
islands there exists a strictly Catholic society and that they tolerate
prostitution. I have two weeks to make one photograph so it depends on
the possibilities of getting the appropriate models."
"I live to make photographs because it is an adventure into my own
spiritual evolution in life. It has changed me because I have been very
lucky. In fact if my work was not shown in galleries I would still make
photographs. Success has given me the possibility to have enough money
to make new work, and to live a healthy life and has given me the possibility
to change direction and do different things. I live in my own fantasy
world. It's a world that I basically wished to have happened and to have
In the end result my work for me has a philosofical esthetic resonance.
I'm doomed to make photographs, but I like that doom.'
extract from interview with
Joel Peter Witkin by Cindy Marler 2001