Mr. Witkin Goes to Washington

Bad Student, 2007

The Great Masturbator and the Country He Rode in On © Joel-Peter Witkin

Joel-Peter Witkin’s work is certainly not for the squeamish or prudish or those easily prone to nightmares. His black-and-white tableaux, which have often made use of cadavers or body parts, can be deeply unsettling. Yet, the dark imagery is as fascinating as it is repulsive.

It’s hard to have seen his famous work The Kiss and not be haunted by its macabre intimacy.

As a reviewer in the New York Times once put it, “you don’t have to buy into Mr. Witkin’s Stygian visions to realize there’s a master of surrealistic photography at work.”

More recently, his staged image of a Trump look-alike astride a phallic mount is at once shocking, grotesque and brilliantly satiric. We’re quite certain that the 2017 piece titled The Great Masturbator And The Country He Rode In On did not win him new fans at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, just mere blocks from where Witkin will be talking about his art this June at the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival. (And it’s not the first time he has viciously lampooned a sitting U.S. president.)

Landing an artist of Witkin’s stature and reputation to speak at our inaugural photo festival is nothing short of a coup for us. His work is held in public collections at some of the world’s most prestigious museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York City; the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and The National Gallery of Art here in D.C.

Of all the influential photographers speaking at our festival in June, Witkin stands alone. You might get inspired to look for the humor in documenting every day life  from Martin Parr or want to find way ways to make creative portraits in the style of Brian Griffin or go out and cover the human condition like Ed Kashi, but you’re not likely to try and be the next Joel-Peter Witkin. Yet, he may be the one speaker at our festival, you can’t afford to miss. It would be like having passed up the chance to hear Diane Arbus or Man Ray lecture.

We’re looking forward to hearing him talk about the inspiration and influences behind his work, his legendary attention to detail in both the staging and printing of his images, how his work has evolved and become, as he puts it, more genteel over the years and, of course, what he was thinking when he decided to put the Donald on top of a giant penis.

Joe Newman is a writer and photographer based in Washington, D.C. He is one of the co-founders of the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival. Click here to register for the festival.

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