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Any death kid worth their death kid stripes loves Joel-Peter Witkin. I certainly did. Or do, I should say. He’s one of those death kid obsessions that stays just as fascinating in your 20s, 30s, and 40s as he was in your teens.

Witkin’s most notorious photographs portraying corpses and body parts were produced mostly in Mexico — where he could get away with such a thing legally — and where he’d worked out a deal with a hospital in Mexico City that let him sort through unclaimed, anonymous corpses and body parts picked up on the streets to use in his artworks. Witkin has a Stuff of Legend-type tale explaining the genesis of this search for beauty in the grotesque, which I reference constantly in my own writing:

It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. While walking down the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident involved three cars, all with families in them. Somehow, in the confusion, I was no longer holding my mother’s hand. At the place where I stood at the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I bent down to touch the face, to speak to it—but before I could touch it someone carried me away.

As an adult, he would say that his camera was a response to the girl’s decapitated head, rolled to a stop at the feet of his child-self.


Joel-Peter Witkin, Still Life with Mirror, 2003

Poet Bethany Pope, who I’ve featured on the Order before, sent me a poem she had written for Joel-Peter Witkin (THAT HAS THE PERSONAL APPROVAL OF WITKIN HIMSELF — SWOON). This presents a chance to feature both her and Witkin in glorious tandem.

Still Life, With Mirror

(After Joel-Peter Witkin)

          I saw something awful today:           a severed foot,           embedded           with five steel nails,           positioned in front           of a silvered piece of glass.             I could not see the blood,           it was a corpse-piece,           there was nothing to flow,           but I could watch the ragged muscle           end, the place where the bone emerged,           white-grey, from the flaccid base,             and I was disturbed. It was, at first,           almost like looking at an           arrangement of flowers,           odd, hard blossoms           from an earth-going vase.           I could tell that it was human,             past tense. And was           it the transformation           that cut off my breath?           The sudden shift from           appendage to ornament?           Or was it the knowledge             that this is something death           could be: no chorus, no reunion           of voices, but simply, through the act           of dissolution, becoming something,           to suck away           the sacred breath.                    
Joel-Peter Witkin, Feast of Fools, 1990
Joel-Peter Witkin, Corpus Medius, 2000
Joel-Peter Witkin, Harvest, 1984
Joel-Peter Witkin, Anna Akhmatova, 2003

Bethany’s Website

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