Arriving in the post this week, a Christmas gift from Supervert, a chapbook featuring a new piece of writing that purports to be the unauthorised biography of American artist/photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. The premise is that the facts of the real Witkin’s life are far too mundane to account for his extraordinary photo tableaux so Supervert supplies details such as “Mary Witkin [his mother] worked as a bookkeeper in a DDT plant, slowly saving to enrich the unfathomable reservoirs of the absurd.” A metaphysical portrait of the artist, then, with echoes of David Lynch or Bruno Schulz. Inside the chapbook was a promo postcard bearing pictures of the delightful Ms. Stoya whose reading of Necrophilia Variations has now gained over four million YouTube views.

The Witkin book isn’t for sale but copies are available to those who enter the Supervert contest which is running throughout December. All you need do is enter an email address here then keep your fingers crossed.


Sanitarium, New Mexico (1983) by Joel-Peter Witkin.

Witkin’s tableaux made an immediate impression circa 1993 when I bought a copy of PhotoVision, a Spanish photography journal which had devoted an entire issue to his work. This arrived at a point when I was halfway through drawing the Reverbstorm comic series, and Witkin’s parade of unorthodox humanity, crucified apes and sundry body parts seemed an ideal complement for the parade of similar grotesqueries (and sundry body parts) we were putting into the comic pages. I also liked the way Witkin worked his own variation on familiar scenes from art history, something we were doing throughout Reverbstorm (Witkin’s Vase: Study For the Base of the Crucifix just happens to combine a partly dissected human skull with Picasso’s Guernica, a recurrent motif throughout the series).


Above and below, some of the more Witkinesque details from part seven of Reverbstorm. The main figure above was a direct reference to Witkin’s Sanitarium, New Mexico. Many figures in other drawings are given Witkin-like blindfolds.



Still from Closer (1994) by Nine Inch Nails.

I was drawing those Reverbstorm pages throughout 1994, unaware at the time that Witkin’s imagery was being plundered for a Nine Inch Nails video directed by Mark Romanek. This NIN fan page examines the various borrowings, also noting the Francis Bacon influence. (They don’t seem aware, however, how much Closer also borrows from Street of Crocodiles by the Brothers Quay.) I recall discussing this thievery with John Balance from Coil during one of our rambling phone conversations. I got the impression that while Coil appreciated Trent Reznor’s support they found the video rather lazy in the way it diluted Witkin’s weirdness for an audience unlikely to have ever seen his photographs (or the Quays’ films for that matter).


Witkin’s Sanitarium figure surfaced again in this tableaux which was unveiled during Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2001 show VOSS. The model is Michelle Olley. By coincidence, the music for many of McQueen’s shows was produced by John Gosling who collaborated with Coil in the 1980s on the Zos Kia project. I believe it’s also Gosling who strips naked and sets himself on fire in Sleazy’s video for Terminus by Psychic TV.

Since 2001 Witkin’s influence has burgeoned, in fact there are so many Witkinesque artists and photographers out there now they probably form a subgenre of their own. My own Witkinesque borrowings can be seen in full in the New Year when the Reverbstorm book will be on sale at last. More about that in due course.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Reverbstorm in print
Hysterical Literature
Reverbstorm update
James Joyce in Reverbstorm
A Reverbstorm jukebox
Reverbstorm: Bauhaus Horror
Reverbstorm: an introduction and preview

3 thoughts on “Witkinesque”

  1. Witkin was a big influence when I was composing the poems for Skin Job and The Cutting Room Floor. I think “Horror Vacui” is the piece most influenced. Glad to see he influenced you as well.

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