Songs Of Innocence And Experience

by Matt Damsker


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Poems by William Blake. Photographs by Joel-Peter Witkin. Edited and with an introduction by John Wood. Published by Steven Albahari. An art publication of Leo and Wolfe Photography, Inc., Brewster, Mass; Limited classic edition of 915 copies signed by Witkin in a custom box; classic reserve numbered edition of 75 copies and 10 numbered artist copies. Trade edition ISBN No. 1-892733-11-0; Deluxe edition ISBN No. 1-892733-12-9. 21st Photography, 9 New Venture Dr., #1, South Dennis, MA 02660; Phone: 508-398-300; Fax: 508-398-0343; email: ; Internet: .

A marriage made in heaven and, one supposes, hell, this lavish production matches the immortal poetic mysticism of William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience" with the profoundly, profanely visionary art photography of Joel-Peter Witkin. The result, not unexpectedly, is a feast of images that carry the familiar and strange mythology of Blake's unique imagination into Witkin's visual world. It is a world of grotesquely idealized physicality, in which the human form in all its forms--beautiful, obese, transgendered, severed, scarred, and tortured--plays a central role in Witkin's liberated theater of religious duality and sheer sensation.

Witkin's photography, staged in a postmodern netherworld of taboo and spirituality, is hard to look at and hard to look away from. Descended from a painterly line that runs from Hieronymus Bosch and through Lucian Freud, his photos are easy to excoriate as sacrilegious, sadistic, even pornographic, but their command of form, their density, and their uneasy evocation of everything from scripture to circus makes them potent, truly enigmatic, and ultimately self-validating.

In his introduction to the book, John Wood calls Witkin's work "a great polyphonic hymn to the body in all its manifestations," while Witkin himself says he channels nothing less than "the face of the Divine" in his focus on death, sex, deformity, and darkness, and in his equating of miracle with monstrosity. Wood calls Witkin "god-haunted," and indeed, these photos are religious artifacts on their own terms, as are Blake's symbol-rich poems.

Printed in a new 10-color, high-resolution offset process on Arches cotton paper, the book debuts 40 of Witkin's newest images along with 22 familiar plates. Disturbing as they may be, they are never far from a kind of negative beauty that manifests in the elegance of Witkin's compositions and the showman's instinct from which he proceeds. His famous "Harvest," in which a death mask of a human face is surrounded by a headdress of vegetation, is a work of pure genius, expressing the cycle of nature and the fact of humanity with seamless vision and purpose. Harder to take, perhaps, is his twisted portrait of a fetus wearing a black mask, but the surreal shock of the image only opens us to a struggle with its moral questions.

And so it goes, as Witkin's scarred tableaux unfold, page upon page. Sadomasochistic images of bound figures with their genitalia stretched, of four-breasted women, of transsexuals, of a newly crucified Christ on a painterly canvas of inked and flayed textures--Witkin's world is haunted, that is for sure, a dark extension of the realism of photographic forbears from Wegee to Diane Arbus. There is also a dark humor that leavens the load. A portrait of "Amour" depicts a voluptuous maja with a demon's head, with a monkey on a stool to her left. "Cuisine of a Failed Romance" stages a statuesque nude, suspended from the ceiling in a room of contrasting geometric shapes, while a dartboard on the wall sports a winged penis taking aim.

Likewise, "First Casting for Milo" displays a female amputee in the role of the Venus de Milo, in a bra and rumpled gown, posed with a cute dog while a pair of disembodied hands at stage left clap the marker board that announces the shooting of the scene. And a "Severed Leg Weathervane" is precisely what its title describes, a surreal totem of Witkin's imagination at the intersection of Nausea and Comedy.

More literal is an image called "Blackman", in which an African male stands nude and uncertainly between two hulking white men who seem to be either threatening him or selling him into slavery. Witkin avoids explicit narrative in his photography, so the image resonates with possibility and a sense of innocence at risk. Indeed, matched with Blake's "The Little Black Boy" on the opposite page ("My mother bore me in the southern wild, /And I am black, but O! my soul is white."), the photograph perfectly illustrates the exalted humanism of the great English poet. At the same time, it registers Witkin's grace--an odd yet apt word for his kind of artistry--when it comes to celebrating the mysteries of flesh and spirit.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.