Research: A4 Joel-Peter Witkin & Isabelle Mège

In draft 1 of my A4 essay I had included a section on one of the images from the Mège Collection, which I decided to cut in order to concentrate on other aspects. I have chosen to post that section here as it covers some aspects which inform my research and can be included in the Notes section for the assignment. Previous notes for this image and JPW can be found here.

Otto Fenichel tells us “looking has the unconscious significance of devouring.” (Fenichel, 1954, 1999; 327)

In a 2000 word essay there is only space to look at a single image fully and Joel-Peter Witkin seemed a suitable choice for this purpose perhaps because it stands out, being rich with signification, as does he within photography in general[1]. However, also because the subjects he explores such as morality, art history and Otherness are relevant to this essay. He is a photographer Mège worked extremely hard to include, and is controversial in any case due to his use of dead human flesh, including heads, in his images. Nègre’s Fetish was published prior to Heyward’s article although it doesn’t look like many or anyone for that matter knew about its inclusion in Mège’s collection. It “appears in the limited edition hand-made book Twelve Photographs (1993), a publication that pairs Witkin’s photogravures with a lengthy poem by Galway Kinnell.” (MoCP, 2016)

The image is a copied from a Charles Nègre negative, held in the Musee D’Orsay, dated 1850. Nègre was one of the first professional photographers to exist. The image, we can therefore deduce, speaks to us about photography and its place in art from its beginning.

It is black and white, created on film and in the dark room, and in the usual style favoured by Witkin, scratched, chemically burned, and manipulated to look old, highly textured and weathered, and more like an object than two dimensional piece of paper. It has, like much of his work, a fantastical Goya-esque flavour to it. His work has been compared to Hieronymus Bosch’ and one can see why.

The subject lies on the bed looking posed and uncomfortable but not in the traditional way in which we are used to seeing women posed throughout art history. Nègre’s original image was not typical of its time and the subject also looks uncomfortable. However, in the modern version the feeling one gets is that the subject is waiting for someone and knows she is being watched. She is soft and childlike, probably due to an averted eye line as well as Mège’s usual sense of vulnerability. The original subject does not look like she is waiting, rather like she is posing in a position for an artist to capture her shape for a study. The modern version, a woman lying on a bed in a peculiar position, appears to contain a greater sense of narrative.

There are symbolic references to art history; a miniature nude on the mantelpiece along with what looks like a small, framed daguerreotype are in the modern image. These symbols of photography history direct us to think about its place within culture. It is not possible to see what is on the mantelpiece in the original, as the depth of field is wide and so the objects too indistinct.

The depth of field in Witkin’s version is narrower, although objects in the very near frame are out of focus, which emulates the way the original negative was developed and has perhaps aged. Scratches affect visual clarity around the edges of the Witkin image.

Like the original there are strong diagonal lines suggested by the position of the subject and bed, the angle of the camera, the pattern of the carpet, the structure of the building, i.e. beams. The effect is a lot of energy and a sense of being tipped, or flown in. It is not calming or serene – although the figure in the modern image seems so.

The chemical burn marks look like spots of blood when you first encounter the image, which makes the image seem like it might be of someone who has been hurt or worse – which, given Witkin’s modus-operandi is not to be overlooked, or under appreciated

The subject looks away. She is effectively ‘scotomised’ by the photographer. Only, we, the artist and viewer get to look. Perhaps an attempt to make this a one-way process.

The subject wears latex heels attached to her feet. They look like they are an extension of her body and denote ‘fetish’ clearly, which is also mentioned in the title.

We might now consider Barthes’ quote from Camera Lucida, “Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made up face beneath which we see the dead” (1981) or Sontag’s “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality….All photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” (1971;15) There is much in this essay to suggest that an Author’s role has been transformed and in some sections, arguments to suggest authorship is entirely dead, certainly the Author-God version. However, Witkin’s ownership of the image seems critical in its reading, and to the collection as a whole, as does Mège’s role. Because of Witkin’s other work, which includes dead flesh, shades of perversion and necrophilia are communicated here, especially in light of the title, and the chemical blotches on the print’s surface, which look like splashes of blood. In the first instance, perhaps he makes fun of Mège, teasing and playing with her obsessive desire to have him and others take her picture. A fetish for photography, and for all it signifies. But we are also viewing a representation of historical use of female flesh as seen throughout art history’s fetishisation of the female form? Witkin deals with morality and the hypocrisy that comes alongside it, and so this reader, who Barthes tells us is the salient author now, suggests it might be so.

All the way through the description of the image, the term ‘subject’ was used; and in a literal sense, the subject is the woman in the photograph lying on the bed. But in another sense it is Witkin himself. Since Mège recruited him, and said “I would like to see myself from your point of view,” making her the originator of this work, an artist who uses the medium of other artist, we can see the subject is Witkin’s own vision, a self portrait as well as a portrait of Other, and photography.

The final result; the title, a tease in the direction of Mège, regarding her obsessive relationship with photography and Witkin’s revelation of his own inner world and relationship with women, art and history is part of a conversation between two artists. It is not simply the expression of one. They are both makers and both subjects and their play is the creativity.

[1] I have, since starting this essay, received a copy of thumbnails of the entire edited collection kindly supplied by Anna Heyward with Isabelle Mège’s consent, and might have chosen another if I’d seen them earlier.


Fenichel. O, 1965.  Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999). Visual culture. London: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University, pp.456-466.

Sontag, S. (1971). On photography. 4th ed. London: Penguin Books. p.15

Barthes, R. (1981). Camera lucida. 25th ed. London: Vintage.


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