Peeling back the layers for a portrait of human truth
by Katharina Galla
The portrait photographer Christian Witkin is best known for his advertising and editorial work for major publications like New York Times Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, Vogue and many more. Entering what he calls "the second half of this life", he is now shifting his professional career to return to his roots in fine art, the foundation of his personal photographic work.
"I've been very fortunate that most of the advertising work I do is what I love doing," says Witkin. "But the commercial world is only important to me in that it allows me a particular lifestyle and to be in this space, and it allows me to photograph whatever the hell I want." According to Witkin, he knew he was meant to be a portrait photographer when he was 17 years old, after years of nourishing himself with art imagery and photography in books given to him from his father, a painter himself. It wasn't until later that he realized that a book by Diane Arbus had greatly impacted his work, along with the works of August Sander and, to some extent, Richard Avedon. "I've always been drawn to faces, but the motive goes beyond that in the peeling back for honest moments and truth," he reflects. "You can read people's faces, you can see how they treat themselves, what kind of lives they live, it's all in the exterior."
When it comes to the commercial world of portraiture, says Witkin, "you are not working with subjects but you are working with celebrities or professional models, but the sensibility remains the same." While shooting the Olsen twins, for example, he relies on engagement, waiting for the moment in which the two women connect and it feels right to them. For him, the beauty lies in this intimate moment.
In the 1990s Witkin took his medium format camera out on the streets in his NYC neighborhood around 14th Street to snap curious New Yorkers in order to build both his portfolio and his confidence to win over people. Ever since, Witkin relishes daylight and working with strangers, always using film for his personal work. When he travels, he uses a smaller hand camera and a 4 x 5 Linhof Technika, which he mastered to operate quickly, because the ability to "act fast", he points out, is crucial. On the other hand, "Composition is part of the talent you are born with, but it has to be refined," says Witkin. "And that can only be done by exposing yourself to these situations. I developed a very keen sense of composition when I actually processed the film and printed my own black and white prints. I rarely crop my photographs, they're just shot the way I want them to be."
Witkin's curiosity for people's attractive and repulsive elements led to numerous journeys to India and purposeful encounters with the fascinating faces and dark stories of dowry victims, diseases like neurofibromatosis, and the discoveries of subcultures like the Hijra in India or the lady boys of Thailand. By way of explanation, he simply says, "I like to be overwhelmed." Through a deep encounter with individuals who fully embody the culture they live in, Witkin managed to document the intensity of certain Indian cultures.
Whether a commercial image or the most intimate nude shot, his portraits likewise demand an engagement from the viewer by exposing layers of communication and manifesting the nuances of the story in the details of the physical body of his subjects. In his practice as a photographer Witkin explores the tension between himself and the subject, the subject and the lens, and inevitably the social framework which insinuates a sense of self-presentation. At times, the viewer is compelled to pause and ponder on the ethical pitfalls of human hypocrisies.
Following the paths of vulnerability and intimate tension, Witkin strips down his subjects. "The more you do it, the more you get into it, literally," he says. A monograph he's working on entitled Ordinary Beauty comprises nude shots and fragments of the female body as a reflection on intimacy and one of many steps he is taking towards what one may or may not want to call fine art photography. His current project in this direction is a composition of four groups of portraits on display this week's New York Photo Festival (NYPHO) opening on Wednesday, 16 May at various locations in DUMBO. Together with Irmelie Krekin and Evangelia Kranioti, his work is going to be shown in one of the four main exhibition segments curated by Claude Grunitzky titled "The Curse and the Gift".