An Internal Evaluation Using Pictorial Criteria
Art Deco Lamp New Mexico (1986)
A first glance of the somewhat strange, yet interesting black and white photograph reveals a full moon illuminating surrounding objects with an interesting pattern of light and shadow. Yet in the next moment, our polite eyes quickly turn away as they are trained to do when we see something we perhaps should not – in this case, the naked twisted body of a deformed woman. Like children, we want to stare though we are told not to do so. And then, perhaps from curiosity, perhaps from a childish rebellion against societal rules or from a need to face our own fear or revulsion, our eyes return to the photograph.
And we stare.
Because no one will know. No one stares back at us.
So we assume.
Joel-Peter Witkin plays on our emotional and moral struggles in his photograph, “Art Deco Lamp New Mexico (1986).” The photograph reflects Witkin’s modern pictorial style: he stages and carefully lights the scene, creating a gritty image that seems to transcend time. The photograph becomes a window to a sinister carnival sideshow where, in our private darkness, we can stare as long as we wish at the unusual, the deformed, even the horrifying – things upon which we would never look so blatantly in the light of day.
Witkin’s artistic process often begins before he even photographs his subject with a sketch or an idea.. When subject and scene are arranged, he makes the photograph and continues the artistic process throughout production, scratching negatives, printing them “through tissue paper to fuzz the texture of the image, giving the prints a specific blurry ‘timeless’ quality,” writes culture critic Cintra Wilson in Salon. Witkin then bleaches and tones the prints , mounts the image on aluminum and hand-applies pigments, covers the photographs with hot beeswax, reheats, cools and polishes them.
His painterly touch is revealed in splotchy drips of white and gray on the walls near the subject as she squats on what appears to be a decrepit wooden trunk. Our eyes wonder whether the splotches are simply that or if perhaps they originate from a more sinister source. At minimum, filth. Perhaps blood. Possibly tears. A longer, blinkless evaluation of the image reveals chilling demonic images here and there within the haze, their lascivious stares fixated on the woman, their mouths open, salivating and waiting to devour her when darkness descends.
Of course, these are not the first things we see. Witkin draws us in with a pleasant focus on curved forms, beginning with the glowing orb in the left quadrant of the photograph, the curve repeated in the woman’s arm circling the orb, in the curve of her spine, her buttocks, her breast, the way her legs curl together and blend one into another. The circular rhythm continues in the smaller circle on the back of the subject’s nearly invisible head as she looks away into the mysterious darkness. A slice of moon above resembles a half-toothed grin – perhaps mocking the subject but more likely mocking us for staring at her deformity while pretending we are not.
The photograph’s primary lighting emanates from the orb, splashes across the woman’s shoulder and illuminates her graceful fingers, a bit of forearm, her shoulder, a portion of hip. Witkin uses additional lighting from center right that reflects softly on the peculiar divots in her spine, gives her ribcage definition and casts shadows under the curve of her breast.
Whether attacked by prying eyes or omnipresent demons (perhaps they are one and the same), the subject’s defense is light. She stoically holds the orb on her shoulder as mythical Atlas carried the world on his. Yet where Atlas stood straight and strong under his burden, hers bends her body and gnarls her spine. A dark flower-shaped patch on her shoulder beneath the orb may be a birthmark, but because Witkin is deliberate with his artistic process and product, the patch may serve as a darkly ironic symbol of beauty as well.
Although cultural standards teach us to be compassionate toward people who suffer from physical deformities, we are not moved to pity by the woman in the photograph because Witkin approaches her in an eerie, almost clinical way. He turns her away from our prying eyes. He presents her as a common object, an “Art Deco” lamp, inviting us to gawk, to take in every unusual detail of her naked body to satisfy our selfish curiosity. We think no one watches us stare, but there are the demons, hovering in the mist with open mouths – less likely waiting to devour the woman as they are to torment our insensitive souls.
“Art Deco Lamp,” is an unusual treatment of human form with all of its flaws and finesse. Witkin uses his artistic process to successfully create an interesting photograph that reflects his pictorial style. He fearlessly manipulates the photograph to resemble a tableau from a hundred years earlier, softening lines, adding scratches, shadows and highlights. The old look of the photograph and placement of elements deceives the eye and taunts the viewer with voyeuristic temptation. Certainly, the demons laugh because they know we will look, even if the image offends the core of our souls.