Friday, May 14, 2010

Cupid & Centaur

This photo appealed to me when I recently stumbled into it on the internet because 1) it resembles an etching, and, 2) the idea of a cupid-skeleton perched on a centaur-skeleton seemed like the sort of fantasy that Goya or Tiepolo might have etched.

Only after these thoughts had passed through my head did I discover that the picture had been created by the 70-year-old American veteran of numberless deliberate photo-scandals, Joel-Peter Witkin.

Years ago as a grad student I had a job in a used book store in downtown Oakland. It was a great job, though the pay was terrible and the benefits non-existent (but it's sad to think how few such bookstore jobs have survived into this brave new world we inhabit now, and how the best thing grad students can reasonably hope for these days in the way of part-time work is making one cappuccino after another).

One of my student co-workers at the bookstore was a serious young photographer who worshiped Joel-Peter Witkin. She explained to me how he shot most of his work in Mexico where the authorities were less fussy about his use of human corpses and body parts as subject matter. Heather, the photography student, showed me many examples of Witkin's work. And I respected her enthusiasm. But in fact I thought the severed kissing corpse-heads and nude elderly amputees were predictable and facile and led nowhere.

But I see now that I was wrong and that Witkin's provocative perversity was leading somewhere interesting after all.