New York

Joel-Peter Witkin, Erotic Dream Series: Two Women Bound #4, 1975, gelatin silver print mounted on board, 11 × 10 5⁄8".

Joel-Peter Witkin, Erotic Dream Series: Two Women Bound #4, 1975, gelatin silver print mounted on board, 11 × 10 5⁄8".

Joel-Peter Witkin

In an arresting black-and-white photograph, two figures in profile stand face-to-face before a dark screen, which is partially surrounded by a pale border. Their heads are tightly bound together, completely obscured by what appears to be white gauze—calling to mind the linen strips ancient Egyptians used to wrap their dead nobles—while their bodies are strapped to one another with what may be a pair of black leather belts. The towering model on the left appears to have no arms, yet the much smaller one on the right clearly does, and they’re folded around the other’s waist. Whether their intertwining is being enacted of their own volition, as in a consensual BDSM framework, or represents something much more sinister—a scene of subjugation and violence evocative of, say, the torture programs at Abu Ghraib—is ambiguous. The surface of the print bears a number of calculated scratches, accentuating that, overall, the image is a product of dextrous darkroom manipulation.

This profane fantasy, titled Erotic Dream Series: Two Women Bound #4, 1975, is by photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, who has been interrogating the more extreme aspects of difference and desire for fifty years. Disturbing yet curiously tender, it was but one of the twenty vintage prints, created between 1950 and 1978, that were on view at Bruce Silverstein Gallery. The benefit of focusing on the first chapters of an artist’s oeuvre lies in the opportunity not only to shine a light on lesser-known pieces, but also to try and understand the art in a different or expanded context. Indeed, though we encountered familiar photographs such as the aforementioned, there were also a few surprises. Puerto Rican Boy, ca. 1956, is a hazy portrait of the titular subject in an arcade reminiscent of a Giorgio de Chirico painting, and Star of David Dancer, 1963, is an abstract whirl of merriment—or even agitation—enhanced by flickering scrawls of light. The latter was apparently Witkin’s first foray into the abrading of negatives, which can produce an array of effects either jarring or joy-inducing.

Other prints—such as Christ, Coney Island, 1967, which shows a lifeless Jesus eerily laid out on a dark shroud, as if just detached from the crucifix, at a beach crowded with gawkers—demonstrated more clearly that religion, for its convoluted and ecstatic qualities alike, has always been central to the artist’s work. It is important to note that Witkin, born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, is himself a devout Catholic and positions his eccentric practice within an ethical rubric that impels his viewers to look upon and embrace those whom society ostracizes. Yet, like Diane Arbus, he has long been accused of exploiting people who exist on the so-called margins—especially those with “nonnormative” bodies, sexual identities, and sexual desires. For instance, his most recognizable and controversial photographs—executed with a palpably voyeuristic avidity and depicting transgender women, cisgender women of size, and disabled individuals—were strategically left out of this show.

However, despite the ineluctably valid critiques that surface when an able-bodied, straight, and cisgender man makes challenging representations of other communities—while providing only the merest scraps of context regarding his production methods—his work has been a major influence on countless artists, musicians, and fashion designers. They have found in Witkin a kindred spirit, as he illuminates, with an almost religious zeal, the types of subjects that most people would rather see relegated to the shadows. And his rapturous attention to the perverse and erotic, to the spiritual and the theatrically staged, has paved the way for a significant array of queer photographers, such as Tessa Boffin, Evergon, and Brian Weil. More than confirming his place in the history of photography, this exhibition demonstrated that, fifty years on, Witkin’s unforgettable art continues to provoke and prompt critical reflection.