PRINT February 1984


Critic 1: It seems that we’re slated to disagree again. We just came away from a session with Joel Peter Witkin’s photographs, but it’s as if we had been at a movie, and as we left, looking into each other’s face, I saw in yours the wrong expression. I’m dumbfounded that you’re able to smile.

Critic 2: I know what you mean about the movie, because I’ve often sauntered out from one with friends and been astonished, in the light, that they were frowning. So many feuds start out that way, with a flick. Just when you think you know a person very well, it turns out that you don’t, especially when it comes to something as considerable as a taste preference. But I don’t want to make an issue of it. Witkin’s subject matter, alone, is so reflex-jabbing and sensational that I can well understand people recoiling from it. In any event, there’s much more to his work than subject, and, as I haven’t sorted out why I feel as positively as I do, we can just chalk this one down to instinctive differences and let it go.

No, it’s too big a mystery. This is self-evidently meretricious art, and I want to know how you can possibly defend it. Incompatible ideas should be compelled to fight one another rather than be permitted to coexist peacefully.

What a heavy thing to say, not least because it was touched off by a smile! Besides, I’m rather a pacific person, and I turn reluctant and defensive when someone invites me to lock horns.

This isn’t a setup. If I know you as I think I do, it’s just staggering that an unaggressive man, with your values, should be attracted by the photography of Joel Peter Witkin. The two of you are quite miscast for each other. It’s hard-core stuff, and you’ve got such elusive, oblique critical strategies. I know that you’ve been thinking and are prepared to write about his work. Here you are, an upstanding type with a positive outlook, a humanist who likes virtue and deplores vice. Above all, a spokesman for a gentle and civil conduct of affairs. Yes? Now, it appears, you’re turned on by a photographer who employs every belligerent, sick trick in the book. We won’t even talk about how his doctoring and doping of negatives offends your well-known rhetoric in favor of straight photography. It’s enough to list his subject concerns: necrophilia, homosexuality, masochism, sadism—those photos just screech and reek of sheer degeneracy—from your point of view. If photographs could smell, Witkin’s would stink of semen and formaldehyde! There appears to be enough hot hatred there of women, life, and loving to sizzle all your good intentions right off the page. If you endorse his work, you approve of imagery you understand to be antisocial. If your friends don’t tell you that, I don’t know who will.

The truth is, I’m not “attracted” by Witkin’s art, but I’m certainly drawn to it. And you’ve missed a few of his other interests in your list: blasphemy, transvestism, fetishism, and other assorted depravities. It’s a smorgasbord of crazes and, come to think of it, it’s wonderful work.

I’m genuinely surprised. That’s very unequivocal. Could I have underestimated you? Instead of being a prevaricator you may be a provocateur.

Me, provocative? I’m a critic. But, as a civilian, I suppose I have all the conventional horrified reactions to the cruel themes of Witkin’s work. If I was attuned to the infliction of pain I wouldn’t trust my reactions as much as I do.

I take your point that a personal interest or a prior erotic attachment leads to a form of critical over-alignment (though an experienced person might just have something more revealing to say about Witkin than you). Still, it seems to me that with this you verge dangerously close to a critical theory of art that keeps you insulated from the psychology to which the work alludes. By that reckoning, you’d feel freer to read the less relevant worldly experience you had, and you’d feel freest if you had none. That’s—no, let me go on—that’s obviously impossible, or, better, foolish. Who would want to trust a know-nothing as a critical guide? We’re not in a court of law, though even there the assumption is that juror inexperience—meaning incompetence—leads toward objectivity. A fatuous idea. Instead of setting you up as an authority, I would have thought that your innocence of Witkin’s world, or ignorant repugnance, would tend to disqualify you.

Are you any more “qualified” in that respect?


Then let me explain myself. I make no pretense to be “objective.” And as for my conventional, and therefore nonexistent, background in Witkin’s iconography, it can’t be helped. I have to start looking from where I am, and if at the end of my contact with the art I’m somewhere else, well, something has happened. (I know these remarks have as much piquancy as beancurd.) If Witkin’s work simply confirmed what I already knew. or reinforced my special tastes, very little would have happened. Not that increased knowledge was ever a chief goal of art (though it often is of photography not intended as art).

And can there be any doubt that these photographs are artistic creations, almost rabidly artistic, rotten with old-master references, and poetic at all costs? To strip art down to its so-called informational content or ideological components is a philistine error—however much the artistic aim may be embroiled with them. The same applies to the idea that the depiction of real nastiness, let us say, incriminates the picture maker. Reciprocally, you’re in no position to say that a viewer moved by such work has some covert allegiance to wickedness, or behaves hypocritically by estheticizing it. You’re a sophisticated member of the art world, so you know the difference between a moral outlook and an artistic message. It’s always a question of finding one’s own morality, rather than imposing it. Imagine how little modern art we’d have if it were restricted to those areas where people were consistently upbeat in their lives, and never caused each other grief. We wouldn’t have any tragedy, either, or even worse, any comedy. As for Witkin’s art, what’s really disturbing is that his mode is neither tragic nor comic, but lyric—and rapturously lyric at that.

It sounds as if you’ve come over to my viewpoint now, and have defected from your usual theory about ripped-off people in photographs implicating their viewers, instilling us with guilt. By the way, what do you mean when you say you’re disturbed by Witkin’s rapturous lyricism (not that I agree with the epithet)?

Heaven knows, we’ve seen a lot of grimness and gore in photography—the usual context being that they’re reported on. The sad canon of such work makes you wonder about people’s inhumanity to each other—it can cause indignation, get you angry at violence and malaise (Robert Capa, Ron Haeberle, the Auschwitz album, and so on). The resonance is tragic. And there are inflammatory political lessons that are learned or repeated. But don’t you think that Witkin exhibits a positively glandular euphoria over such noxious stuff? He’s an authentically Sadean artist of high ambition—someone I’m reluctant to deal with, and who is fortunately rare. It’s not his subject matter alone that upsets me, it’s his processing of it—and the circumstances that contribute to his style, or are necessary to his impact.

How should I put it? His artistic form is “on the side of” pain—a world that comes into its own for his lens. He is electrified by death and is in conspiracy with the torturers. I look and am taken into their shameless confidence. At the same time, this is a very serious affirmation, not at all an entertainment, cynical or otherwise. In horror movies, we can derive a pleasure from being scared; in Witkin, I’m scared because of his pleasure! And he’ll do anything he can to make me accept it, not because he’s socially inclined toward me or anyone else, but because he’s so radically self-absorbed, like an artist.

You say the artist scares you, by virtue of his pleasure, no less. What is this, hypersensitivity or garden-variety paranoia? Whichever, your condition sounds pretty regressive. It’s an artist’s right to be absorbed in artistic processes—we don’t expect and don’t like an artist’s indifference to the execution of the work. Apparently you can accept the condition of a photograph as a report on gore, but you take issue when an artist internalizes a gory theme. Somehow the reporter is innocent while the artist can be reprehensible. Yet, if the difference is between witnessing something and metaphorical engagement with it, what has Witkin actually shown that compares in the least, say, with Donald McCullin’s photographs in Africa, Cyprus, or Vietnam? I don’t have to tell you that the spilling of real blood is on another level of existence from kinky charade.

You mean that the one is entirely disproportionate to the other, and, of course, I agree . . . as a general statement. The act of bearing witness to war doesn’t ordinarily implicate the witness or viewers by any rapport with the atrocity. Even when the photographers belong to the same party as those who have slain. What is the relation of the one who records to the things that have been recorded? We can’t say that the photographer has caused or even permitted terrible events (their effect is another matter entirely). If it were not a literal outsider in its dealing with such events, the photograph could not be called a report. Such a report is intensified by the way it signifies that reality is a fait accompli, that the awfulness would have occurred—did occur—regardless of whether the photographer was there or not. (Naturally, the framing editorializes it, and the eventual context prejudices that reality through and through—but that’s a different question.)

It’s obvious what’s coming next. The artist photographer, you will say, takes responsibility for the subject, either through having brought it about or through an arrangement and encouragement of it, and therefore has created a reality. But I can’t call the result a reality: nor can you. Witkin’s scenes are fictions, his people are actors playing a role, with the exception of the cadavers—whom, I presume, he has not bumped off ahead of time. It would be ridiculous to say that they were playing the role of dead people. Witkin’s work approaches still life or, at best, a tableau-vivant, not action. He may be largely in control of the proceedings, but they are not of consequence. At least not of any historical consequence. Even if there are moral provocations, they are strictly bound up, and subservient to, his metaphorical strategies. So I fail to see why you’re still spooked, as if there were things that actually happened in these photos.

Work of this sort strikes me as an antidote to the numbing effects of photoreportage. We become desensitized to fatality, for it’s photographed every hour by those whose professional detachment becomes, in the end, infectious. Oh, I don’t know. Maybe we need to protect ourselves from this kind of everyday nightmare. But I didn’t feel protected or prepared for the magnitude of what Witkin has to offer—because of his revelation of the desire for cruelty. Certainly he hasn’t given us a “snuff” movie, but that is no cause for gratitude, only a restraint that makes him discussable. The war photograph inflicts me with my very real helplessness in the face of what it presents. It’s like a crime photograph writ large, even if it happens to frame fewer bodies. War is sanctioned and escalated crime—historical enough—but in still photography, the carnage of it recedes. You ask, “Why had it come to that?”. A good question. Lebanon, for example. But in Witkin’s work you can almost ask, “How can he come to that?”—the kind of attitude that leads to bodies, the production of dead bodies. You’re in a universe in which things seem to go wrong genetically. No war photograph quite gives you such unusual access to morbid states . . .

Of what?

Of consciousness, of animal release that isn’t good. There’s a difference between seeing the results of the killer instinct and anticipating/them. In that sense, the bodies in these photographs might be the most terrible images, but they are the least frightening.

For me, you know, it’s the contrary. With the bodies (deceased through natural causes or not), Witkin realizes his esthetic goals with the least amount of artifice. It’s possible to be skeptical about a dramaturgy that has to extend itself too far in order to match the apparent extremity of the subject matter. But Witkin protests his estheticism instead of activating it. In the play of dramatic personages only the dissected ones strike home into my feelings, give me an irreducible shock. I am in the presence of ghastly images that have been discovered and not contrived. The medical circumstances are conflated with far older medieval and Mannerist descriptions of ravenous, wormy decay. These are, no doubt, autopsy specimens that have been roughly cut or sliced by metal. Just the same, Witkin has arranged the vertically split head of an old man so that it appears to kiss itself on velvet, and he photographed the profile of an opened OD’d young woman close-up, and tenderly. Compared to this loveliness among the maggots, how am Ito respect the merely Guignol effects of all the rest? The hot breath of the apparent doesn’t compete with the cool beauty of the actual.

Were it only so simple! I don’t find anything “apparent” about the quite real fetuses that crop up in some of his pictures, and that singular creature who sports a penis as well as mammaries, a legless man, or Fist Fuck, where half an amputated arm vanishes into an anus. Were, he to have painted any of these subjects they would have been more or less sensational invented icons; here he does much worse and bears witness to them.

Having said that, I’d also say that he gives us a mix in which irremediable states are mated with transitory or inferential ones. The Wife of Cain, I presume, has ceased being pregnant since 1980. And it’s hard to imagine that man’s testicles still being stretched by a pullied weight over his head a year later. As for the inferential, how about the expression of the naked androgyne, suckling a fetus, so concerned it reminds me of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother? Call them one-shot abominations, if you will. Call them setups! Whether directed by the model or imposed by the photographer, decked with symbolic trappings or not, these scenes once existed and now engage me in a war of nerves. “The actual” and “the apparent” do incest before my eyes. Show me where these images are only hot-breathed or cold. Far from being one or the other, they’re feverishly both.

Well, I see that more credit than I thought has to be given Witkin for exploring what you call “the irremediable.” That takes him well past Diane Arbus, Hans Bellmer, George Platt Lynes, Les Krims, and Robert Mapplethorpe, I grant you. He’s an authentic bad boy. But in raising their stakes he also magnifies their problems. His subjects are so inherently abused in the flesh that he has to serve them up with an allegorical gravy in order to make them palatable. Such titles as Expulsion from Paradise of Adam and Eve, The Capitulation of France, or Pygmalion and Galatea, to take only a few, indicate his pretensions. That’s the trouble with so many of these people: involved with gamey material, they have to demonstrate how raffiné they are. It’s not surprising how easily these naughty men, and a nervy woman—or rather, their work—get on with chic, the chic crowd. It’s a chain reaction, downward, into the furbelows of tastefulness. If I don’t sympathize with Witkin’s art-historical posturing it’s because I find it dispensable—and the moments in which he really gets me are free of it.

I can’t help noticing that the work has negative attributes for you, partly because it is appreciated by people whom you disapprove of—the “chic” crowd. Even when stigmatized by fashion, some art, don’t you think, can still retain merit? More important, haven’t you allowed your attitudes toward an artist’s (assumed) public to affect your judgment, so that—well—it may not be just your unique organism I’m dealing with, but some highly socialized class biases.

I see no reason to revise my opinion about a market environment in which a certain kind of art makes a strong appeal. That may just be a handy way of confirming the instinctive reaction that I do have.

How, even if true, does that really bear on the problem—my uncertainties and your convictions?

Because art is tagged by its patrons, and their identity can illuminate its rhetoric. There’s nothing to restrain me from reading backward like this and discovering how an artist’s intentions can be reflected quite accurately by their coterie, and their specific institutional network. These are social exchanges, the artist and his audience are in the world, and am I not, too, in the social world?

I thought you’d never ask!

Oh Oh! That was particularly devious of you.

Maybe. But my point was a general one, you see, because it’s necessary to stress how very impure our reactions are—that our “instincts” are already highly socialized, to begin with, and that even if we were to make some reductive definition of them, as you did, they rarely operate in isolation from other factors that push us on. Our drives are affected by and affect our reasoning, and our sociality. Just the same, the social projection is by no means the whole story.

I assert that this man has pandered to an audience, which is an inauthentic position for an artist. You hedge on the social aura of these pictures, yet you deny any instinctual priority—you’re in limbo.

I have to acknowledge that I’m glad you said that, even though it emphasizes what’s hard to follow in my argument. I find it hard, curiously hard, to empathize with people in photographs who flirt, as you say, with the enactment of their own pain, or who undergo pain willingly for a photographer. Photography brings us faraway peoples, remote customs, bizarre practices of other cultures, dead acts. That is, it habitually acquaints us with communities that are strange to us, or out and out different. Yet the citizens of Cuzco in 1929, or of Madagascar in 1859, are well within my family, compared to these self-punishers in San Francisco in 1981! To me, they are the ultimate others. By excluding everything else, Witkin says to me: this is the present and the imminent future.

What I would want never to happen to me his people mime or undertake—as Witkin insists—with large good humor and complaisance. Such a divide takes my breath away. It makes me feel closer with everyone else in the world—an unexpected and valuable solidarity. You know I’m pretty concerned with the transactional character of photographic experience. How does a viewer relate to the material in the picture as something that actually happened, as human and social action? If it were a question of one more exotic group of outsiders, relative to me as to other insular viewers, I could accommodate his art—and there would be no limbo. On the contrary, he gives me to understand that I’m an outsider to those who collaborate with him in these unspeakable practices, these frightful and aboriginal rites. And then, with amazing chutzpah, he implies that I’m missing something—that he and they are having all the fun! At the precise instant that I realize my strong alienation from his subjects (that is, right away), he blithely, though with considerable art, works to dissolve it by his invitational stance. As soon as I know that I will not empathize, the photographs declare that I can and even that I should. He anticipates or outflanks my desire to disconnect from subject matter with which it’s impossible for me to be engaged. That is the limbo, and you will admit that it is unusual.

Tell me, then, are you having any fun? . . . No answer. You’re foundering, really, in your own ambivalence.

It’s certainly no fun to try to give an account of myself to you. Yes—no—I’m not having fun. Who enjoys being blocked like this, and who can fail to be moved by it?

Many! Your introspection, apropos Witkin, resembles run-ins you’ve had with the avant-garde, which in the past you’ve often rejected because of its obscurity and arrogance.

Not so in this case. When I complained then, it was because I felt depreciated or demeaned and used. Chris Burden, for instance. His documentary (really publicity) photographs—completely insignificant in themselves—reported self-abusive acts: shooting or crucifying himself. I hope I don’t sound callous when I say there was no return in that. Burden was merely gesturing within a context that had an avant-garde structure. Witkin is no avant-gardist. He’s not testing how far he can go, in an utterly detached way. Witkin is a romantic. He’s contemporary, very ’80s. He doesn’t depreciate himself or his people or me by what he does—no matter how depraved the tone. And the photographs are highly significant in their processing.

Well, the limbo still exists, by your own admission. And I’ll put on file that strange bit—strange, coming from you—that no depreciation is involved in the experience of his work. In your terms, he seems to have deprived you of the luxury of feeling guilt over the sadness of his people, and then of expiating your privileged remorse by admiring the photography. What I see in your argument is a quickly improvised scheme to salvage intellectually the disintegrative liking you have for this guy’s art. It doesn’t give me pleasure to see you in this fix.

I suppose the ideal shock of Witkin’s photography would derive from its character of revelation. He himself often chooses to interpret it as religious revelation, but we’re talking about the psychosocial response to his images. Or your response. You discover that you cannot accommodate this work because it postpones and twists the notion you have that Witkin’s subjects should be outsiders to your experience, and therefore in a more or less pitiable state. Suddenly, the artist makes you think that you may be in the pitiable, powerless state. I think it’s novel for you to entertain the idea, that it’s strangely comfortable.

Any disequilibrium in the power relation between myself, as a viewer, and photographed subjects makes me uneasy and is probably inevitable. I’m anxious when I can intuit an advantageous or disadvantageous position for myself—and I’m bored when I can’t. Witkin really tips the scales in a problematic way, so that, naturally, I’m very interested.

Obviously, outsider status is not my exclusive prerogative when looking at photographs. Nor is it yours. I’ve gone into this, off and on. “Outsiderness,” if you excuse the term, is our lot in this context. I mean simply that we weren’t there, and I also mean that we don’t know what happened (although, in Witkin, we can well guess). So this is an automatic alienation, which we all share and which unites us. Our physical insulation from the pictured scene, even if the setting is familiar to us, is a given. No doubt this is to trivialize the word “alienation,” but this is nevertheless the estranging rule from which we all have to start when we look at these pictures. Special empathies, knowledge, or prior exposure to the subject, depending on personal circumstances, will bring some of us closer to (or take us further from) the content of the photograph. I’m interested in the mutual foundations of our regard. And, therefore, I search out what is nominally common in our approach—something that levels us when we start treating photographic culture in itself. I think we start by recognizing that we’re external to the depicted scene. And that implies that another reality, not the one we’re in, has been presented to us. It can look just like ours, but it isn’t. Meanwhile, we do know that it once existed, and this awareness produces a kind of suction: i tdraws us in.

Why on earth are you interested in leveling? It really bothers me that you use so liberally those words “us,” “we,” “our.” Don’t you see that your readers can be put off by your assumptions? I’m equally put off by your equation of your “conventional” and “insular” self with other viewers—in the teeth of your very peculiar involvement with this art. It’s a rhetoric of false inclusiveness. Count me out!

I hope not. For one thing, I want to be able to talk to you—or to talk out of, and past, myself. What does the relation of the writer to the reader amount to if it is not based on a social contract, an assumed possibility of communication, and understandable terms of reference? As viewers all of us are outsiders to the pictured events. That’s why I can use the word “we”—the vast number of us who weren’t there. Witkin’s extremists excite interest, not because they’re the center of attention, but because they disport themselves as if their desire is unexceptionable—and we’re at the margins. I want to be able to convey this topsy-turvy matter—with all its disturbances—to readers.

In order to do that, I have to assume not only that we confront photography, and its unique challenges as a medium, together, but that my sexual makeup and my morality are clear to those who hear me or read me. It’s not so terrible to be a sounding board, to have average responses, believe me. They allow me to be grated like mad by Witkin, to experience the full, disagreeable beauty of his work.

Do you, then, in the “full” presumption of your averageness, imagine that you are some arch-representative of the majority of audience attitudes, that you can speak on behalf of people you don’t know? That they must agree with you because you have taken on for yourself, and headed off, their unspoken sexual makeup and morality?

Oh. No . . . no, no!

One “no” would have been enough.

I didn’t mean . . .

Don’t get embarrassed. You just don’t want to feel too alone. We know about that, we critics. How often do we extend ourselves or expose ourselves without any kind of visible repercussion or sense that it makes a difference, that people are interested or listening? Of course, I’ll concede that if critics don’t seek support and credence beyond the immediately interested party they won’t deserve much response, either. But you see how self-entangled you get when you try to build bridges. You’re a white, middle-aged, heterosexual male; but I could easily show you how less and less typical you are of those around you. What a strange perspective—your humble grandiosity! There’s a kind of sympathy that overreaches itself and becomes obtuse. Actually, your ego is strongest and most authentic, most valuable to your fellows, only when it does not imagine there are others like it. You felt you had to get the audience on your side against Witkin’s subjects. There’s a writer, Hugh Prather, who’s worth quoting here: “The principle seems to be: It’s a ‘fault’ if I am also capable of it, a disease if I am not.”

I stand corrected. Yes, we’re all encapsulated in our idiosyncracies, which surpass the understanding and can’t be leveled. Maybe your phrase my “humble grandiosity” catches something idiosyncratic about me that I haven’t considered. I wonder if it isn’t possible to see sadomasochism, Witkin’s thematic, as oxymoronic, too. That figure of speech comes very close to evoking what is dreamlike in Witkin’s work, its use of opposite and self-concealing terms.

Since you mention it, we can get back to the work, which you still haven’t slapped into life for me. Would you please explain what you meant about the art being “very contemporary, very ’80s”? It seems quite passé to me. You talk about this photography as simultaneously embracing you in its psychic pull and putting you off. I see it as very 19th-century in its references—and therefore very far from suggesting questions like “How can he come to that?”. Witkin’s processing, his use of tissue over the paper in enlargement, his dribbling and soiling of the negative with potassium ferrocyanide, his sepia toning, the way he scratches and scrawls on the negative—all this suggests his infatuation with age, the mortality of that object which is the image. Nothing could be further from anticipating the killer instinct, as you put it. On the contrary, he gazes backward, and elaborates the conceit that his work has survived accidentally, like E.J. Bellocq’s, in a distressed and battered state. The more these photos seem to have gone through a hard time, the more they aspire to a retro-justification—as if earlier, obviously benighted viewers, compared to us, had wanted to kill them. The only interesting thing to come out of this is the impression that to view Witkin’s pictures in the present is to rescue them from an undeserved oblivion.

Oh, and one further idea. Nineteenth-century photographers tended to scrutinize their subjects, while 20th-century ones glance at theirs. The scrutiny is imperious and encyclopedic, a protracted and relentless visual exam which assumes that things are indefinitely available for study. It’s acquisitive and yet clinical. The glance is a much more nervous affair, nervous in its interestedness because it doesn’t know itself to be honorable. We have shorter attention spans now; we’re not so much interested in descriptions as in mood. We crave fast intimacies. The moderns are bewitched by sensations and events that dissolve before their eyes, so that they tend to evoke an unstable environment of partial action and psychological nuance. Witkin employs the scrutiny, so much so that he looks positively Victorian. At the same time, he fussily murks the space, and the light, or vignettes his scenes, to invoke a special mental agitation . . .

Wait. You know, as you were talking—oh, excuse me for interrupting—but, as you were talking I thought of something peculiar. Transparence. There is one sort of photograph, isn’t there?, where the last thing you want to deal with or care about is that it’s a photograph: pornography. Who cares about the filtering mind that produces these studies? Pornography, or for that matter slides of paintings. The use, the showing forth, is so evident that the photograph figuratively dissolves. If looks could touch, in pornographic photography they’d do it. However, I want to speak technically about a psychological transaction. Not necessarily mine. Desire, supposedly invoked by the pornographic shot, and knowledge, apparently confirmed by the art slide—both are given through modes that operate as visually sufficient. The immediately accessible subject is yielded up to satisfaction right away, short-term, or else it fails . . . the picture fails. That is what I mean by transparence. When it succeeds, the pornographic photograph or the art copy substitutes for the object. God forbid anything should get in the way. The photograph can’t be seen to interpret anything. No one wants to read the photograph that reads the Michelangelo. The more there is a need to understand the picture as a compensatory image—to reward one with a substitute when the real thing isn’t there—the more the picture ostensibly thins away. I’m not talking about naturalism here, but rather the uninterrupted illusion of the viewer’s proximity to the subject. One can either “scrutinize” or “glance” and still be concerned, above all, with proximity. This is very social of the pornographer and the slide maker. To serve the sensation required by the mode is to imply an exemption of the image from the photographic process—on behalf of a specific use.

Witkin, absorbed in art and sex, as I said, is not social. His work isn’t compensatory, in the manner of the pornographic photo. He told me that, in the past, he sometimes used to join in, after photo sessions, just to continue the sexual energy, but that now he puts all his energy into the negatives. As soon as that happened, I bet his work started to get more opaque and took on a certain body. By the way, I think you’re wrong about the scrutiny being marooned in his work: there are all sorts of glances there, too, and both are very moody.

How can a photographer be antisocial and invitational? If you invite, you invite someone—it’s transitive. Any verb that implies a human object is virtually social.

Well, I could point to the fact that the pornographic or art-copy photo is abrupt and quick whereas our photographer is postponed and obscure in his effects. We tend to look “through” the utilitarian pictures and at the self-consciously artistic ones. Use implies a subordinate relation of means to ends; the picture is supposed to be delivered with as little mediation as possible, although that is rarely, no, never, the case. Pornographers are constrained to be pretty formulaic and self-effacing, on pain of being taken as artists—and having to perform like them. If they were artists, they would be far more concerned to gratify their own narcissism than to craft the visual metaphor of their sitter’s narcissism. I have to interrogate the way Witkin pictures things before I can make any sense of them.

Meanwhile, his adrenalized flare-up sieves back through the murk, but delayed and oddly filtered. I can’t think of this as being compensatory or useful. These people turn into icons, finally. Or maybe they were iconic from the start and I was confused. But I have a right to be! Witkins’ genre suggests pornographic or, better, obscene intimacy, yet most of the eroticism goes into the handling. The iconic ends are surrendered to the means, safely enough since the icons have already been derived from real evidence, out there. I can’t strike that evidence from my mind, yet I also can’t ignore the strange transformation that has occurred.

What ironies! The “out there” that I mentioned comes back to me now as the matrix of another world, an art zone that I can never enter but can certainly appreciate. Just when I, as a spectator, can count on the model’s flagrant exhibitionism, the artist inscribes it with his own. If I am brought close to anything it’s to his portentous sensuality, which has taken a soft, though objectified, form. His hand touches the negative. Look how he tinctures it. But the “it” is the two-dimensional image, not the person pictured. Frankly, you know, that’s a relief. I am back in the familiar area of the artist’s self-regard, that is, the regard for his object, the secretion of his ego. That is something that I can cope with and that includes me, as an art lover. Witkin returns the image from the photo-land, where it was potentially unbearable, to some intermediate district, where it appeals to me actively as an invention. The more enigmatic the final product, the more domesticated the effect. I consider this invitational. I begin to think he sides with me, against explicitness. Naturally, I don’t mean explicitness of act and behavior, but of description and setting. His treatment of the negative and the depth of his printing are intrusive and violent only in the sense that wounds can sometimes be understood—in poetry, of course—as tender. So, here again is another use of the oxymoron, that figure of speech to which I’m sympathetic. I have seen one of his photographs in the studio, a picture that won’t go out. Probably a test shot. It showed a rather trussed-up figure against the bare wall, under a hot, glaring light, and it left nothing to the imagination. It was naked. And I saw in a flash how the darkening and the vignette clothed the nightmare in a fantasy that was delicate and, yes, redolent of the past. When other artists do that—and there have been many, but with less extreme subject matter—the nostalgic softening seems excessive and unearned, a mushy overlay. There was nothing really that significant or sensational for them to cover, and they became too invitational.

You wear me out with your finical qualifications and your loose dialectic. Evidently, the more asocial an artist is, the more he engages your fellow feeling. At one moment you applaud his raw, unpleasant shockingness; at another, you admire his euphemistic procedures. If Witkin isn’t “transparent,” that is, useful, nor is he altogether opaque, then what is he—translucent? Maybe he just has to wipe more of the excretions off his lens. Here we go again, with your wavering, your inconsistency. I’ll say one thing for Witkin: he’s less digressive than you are.

Am I required to be logical about this business? Oh, I didn’t know. As for my inconsistency and wavering. I’d like to quote Diderot in my defense: “Look, my friend,” he said, “ . . . you will find that in everything our true opinion is not that from which we have never wavered, but that to which we have most habitually returned.” You and I see things very differently. I perceive myself as always coming back, maybe from different angles, to the same tension, the same disturbance that Witkin’s work has generated within me. Naturally, I’m talking around it, but everything I say has the purpose of respecting the unreasonable contradictoriness, the at-odds quality of the experience. Is there, in the name of psychological realism, a more appropriate . . . ?

That’s just it. This whole argument smells of psychological reductivism, spiced, if you can call it that, by liberal morality and effete connoisseurship. And even on the comparatively trivial level of psychology, you trip over your feet and don’t make sense. You call yourself a civil person, concerned with civil conduct, and yet you hanker after violent and abusive art.

Can you think of anything more bland than art whose ideal is civility?

Look, psychological realism is a minor issue compared to the actual values we ought to be talking about. Where is your awareness of the fact that this guy shows work that has horrible problems, among them the depiction of women? The women are grotesque or monstrous, suffocatingly ominous and castrating. They produce or sprout succubi. One of them serves a man’s head on a platter. Witkin’s women play with carrots at the wrong orifice or suckle eels. Come on! You call this world enigmatic? The fin-de-siècle viciousness of it drives me up the wall. You’re a boob for backing it.

OK. No doubt, if you get a culture like ours, you’re bound to get unwholesome art like his and strident talk like yours. I wish it were different—let me tell you! But you don’t know that his ambiguous work has any outright sexist message, or other messages stronger. For example, the fact that most of his men want to achieve the illusion of being beautiful women while the actual women in the work are often gorgons. And if it’s hard to say that works of art have obvious messages it isn’t so easy to characterize some human beings, either. You speak out against aggression in this world, which presumably would include the aggression of men against other men, and therefore the endless production of innocent male victims, too. No? So what about your aggression toward me, the way you demean me?

What are you talking about?

What you permit yourself to say to me. You’ve needled me, you know, you’ve sneered, you’re a virtuoso of condescension. It’s not as if you’re speaking to a colleague and a peer, but someone you can call a “boob,” and therefore a person who doesn’t have much human dignity, or self-respect. An object. Criticism has every right to be tendentious, but it shouldn’t be a blood sport. You initiated this topic not to engage in mutual exploration or to offer corrective ideas, but to provoke me, as I now see. Relating to you turns out to be much more damaging than relating to Witkin’s work, which is to say a great deal.

If your feelings have been hurt, I’m sorry. And I wasn’t trying to provoke you, but to hold you to account for vagaries that you haven’t thought out very well.

Apparently Witkin’s work (or my espousal of it), does have consequence, since you’re so riled by the whole thing. Come to think of it, our personal dynamic grew out of tangling with his program, so that it’s not just art moves but life events that we’re reacting to.

But I can’t simply interpret this photography as a misogynist tract or evangelical sadism.

Don’t you see the great deal in his work about nurturing and wonder? Oh, you raise an eyebrow. But just as you say there is a sympathy that’s obtuse, I reply that there is a skepticism that’s blind. Look at the nursing and kissing and bodily pride and ecstasy in these pictures. The Beautiful Man happens to be an image . . . of sweetness . . . of such seraphic excellence and charm. The demonic character of its grimmer cousins undoubtedly enhances that effect, but even those grimmer ones share in a kind of astonishment. Someone has taken risks and plunged into a distorted world. There he had encounters from which I would shrink. And he comes back with emblems of the marvels he saw or contrived, and of the trust he inspired.

Truly the whole atmosphere is more innocent than in Arbus’ work. With her milder tableaux, the effect arises out of an element of broken trust, which creates great moral seaminess. She does not destroy her subjects’ confidence, but in order to get her kind of distressing pictures, she breaks their trust, the trust they had in her. With Witkin, trust is simply taken for granted in the collaboration of photographer and subjects as performance artists. I’ll admit that I didn’t sense this at first, because I was put off by the freakish display. It’s true I spoke of him as a Sadean artist, but he has a childish amazement, a desire to see unheard of things that’s terrifically fresh in itself. The pain of these scenes loses out to the life in them. And then, though there’s very little irony in his work, despite the titles, I find a lot of comedy . . .

You’ve got a brain that foams, you know that? It’s maybe one of the endearing things about you. But I can’t keep up. And this bit about comedy—in a minute you’ll be saying that Jack the Ripper was really Woody Allen in disguise!

Well, these pictures operate by hyperbole, they have an outrageousness which is burlesque, a “bad taste” which is humorous in the end. He can call a picture of a man with an amputated arm and many kinds of artificial limbs—Deviated. This is the humor of insiders who are the only ones allowed to get away with the put-downs of the outsiders. And he pokes fun at Renaissance, Baroque, and Modern art all the time, in an affectionate way. He has it in particularly for the Venus figures. Art history is a caricature of desire, a field for sexual inversions. Witkin possesses a lively sense of the ignoble and the most profane instincts, which have a critical value as well as a comic aura. I like his frivolous morbidity—which doesn’t prevent me from being grossed out!

So what do I do with my “blind skepticism,” which hobbles my appreciation of this fine, ignoble artist? Where you notice the burlesque, I spot the ridiculous. That is, an archly conceited attempt to be clever, as if to misdirect what is only too obvious. Daumier disparaged the classic tradition by turning its heroes and heroines into flitch figures for the good reason that such idealism was really dessicated in his day. Witkin plumps for a classic tradition of “the nude,” but in drag, for no better reason than to aspire to its authority, within his terms of reference. In any event, the accent is still phallic. As for comedy, if this stuff is to have any impact it can’t be intended as spoof. I refuse to believe it.

In the name of your disbelief you perform prodigies of rejection. I think it’s funny that you’ve just tried to rescue Witkin from my defense of him as a comic spirit. Comedians frequently get away with murder. Humor is just one more potential used in a strategy that siphons us into the dream world, or the limbo that I talked about. I think that this is a zone where people exhibit, in the most pronounced way, their failure to conform to certain things or to be certain creatures. Only the very beautiful or the very dead are what they are—and then only temporarily before they vanish. Most of the rest are in some onanistic drive or mortifying process, enacted out of an impulse that can never be fulfilled; their offspring have died before they were born. Perhaps the fact that so many of them wear masks, or their faces are obscured by Witkin, bears on this point. You remember Oscar Wilde saying, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.” And it is the truth of their fantasies (or Witkin’s) that exposes them, far more than the fact that they are disrobed. I remember years ago, in the ’50s, the film based on the Broadway play The Moon is Blue; the ingenue in it, Maggie McNamara, is criticized for always being preoccupied with sex, and her snappy reply is, “Better to be preoccupied than occupied.”

Well, times have changed. But this “preoccupation” homes in now, with delirious comeuppance. Partners are not generally available in Witkin’s images, sex identities (whether pre- or post-op) are not what they seem, pain is not what it’s supposed to be. The whole universe of S and M revolves around a kind of charade, an elaborate counterfeit, in which the mental gratification far outweighs the physical one, and yet eggs on the pleasure of the body. And in photography, that pleasure can come from the outside in, from the subject’s awareness of being looked at. These people have got it all wrong, I keep on saying. They’ve got it backward. They should be looking out at the world for their pleasure, but, of course, the camera does the reverse to anyone who poses. It saturates them with the pain or pleasure of being looked at. In that sense, these weird people are doing what comes naturally—in fact they’re very pure, super camera subjects, except they can never do what they do, in public.

And what about Witkin? That waiter in an Albuquerque restaurant, whose horrid pictures we’ve been discussing all this time under the sun and among the palms of California. What about his makeup or mix-up?

I don’t really know the man and can only retail what he tells me of his life.

Which is?

That he was born in Brooklyn, an identical twin (though a fraternal triplet died), to a Russian Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother, who divorced when he was a baby. This was about forty years ago, I’d say. On the weekly appearance of a mysterious stranger he would ask his mother, “Who is this Al Mony?” He remembers coming upon an automobile accident when he was six, when an object rolled out over to him from across the street, a little girl’s head, which amazed him. He seems to have been trained as a sculptor. He spent four months in India meditating, studying Buddhism, photographing temples. Somewhere along the line, in the early ’60s, he’d been in the army, with an M.O.S. as a combat photographer. Later, for many years, he was involved in primal-scream therapy, during which a padded room in New Jersey graved itself in his memory. He wants to do a graduate thesis show at the University of New Mexico entitled “Pictures That Changed People’s Lives,” of adultery photos from detective-agency files. He assures me that one such picture changed his life. A few critics say he’s been influenced by the old Penitentes of New Mexico, but frankly, the Jews invented tsouris and guilt before the Penitentes. Some photographers need refrigerators to keep their film cool; this one has used a freezer to prevent his props from decomposing. A further or final note: he’s married and has a child.

It doesn’t at all sound like there need be a final note. This story of a life, that explains everything and nothing, is very much in progress. What a protean fellow!

Yes, I think I sometimes get preoccupied with protean personalities.

Better to be preoccupied than occupied.

Well, I can’t prove you wrong. But then, it never was a question of proof.

Agreed . . .

That word! That blessed word!

No big deal. But all this talk has made me thirsty. Come on, let’s have a drink. Whaddya say . . . a Bloody Mary?

Max Kozloff is a photographer and writer whose book The Restless Decade: John Gutmann’s Photographs of the Thirties will be published this spring by Harry Abrams, Inc.