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Modeling for Joel-Peter Witkin

I am a congenital amputee, a scholar who analyses representations of disabled bodies in art and visual culture, and a visual artist.  All of these aspects of my identity relate to why I am fascinated by Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs, particularly those that showcase amputees and other disabled models. My personal experiences, specifically as an amputee woman, lend me a unique perspective on Witkin’s work.  His photographs are most often characterized as portraying human tragedy and shame, but I see much of it remarking on the most fundamental issues of life and vitality: hedonism, exhibitionism, sensuality, desire, eroticism, the body in pain, and the scope of human diversity.  When my book was published, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art, I chose Witkin’s photograph “First Casting for Milo,” (2004) for the cover.  I always loved the image. On reexamining the photograph, I realized that the model had amputee arms identical to my own.  It’s one of my favorites of his photographs.

The subject matter of my research has proved to be personal and in some ways unexpectedly so.  While researching my book, I visited the Ricco Maresca Gallery for a Witkin exhibit.  I met the photography curator and personal friend of Witkin, Sarah Hasted.  She thought that because of my interest in his work, knowledge of art history, experiences (personal and scholarly) with disability, and, above all, because of my body, Joel and I should meet.  I was eager to serve as his model.  I felt that while arguing that self-display for disabled people can be a liberating personal and political act, I should have the experience and ‘put my body where my mouth was!’  After much correspondence and many sketches later, in the Spring of 2007, I traveled to Albuquerque, NM to meet Witkin and to become a performing agent in one of his tableaus.

I wrote about the experience in my journal and later in my book.  The long weekend is now a blur, but I recall specific details: visiting with Joel’s horses and dogs earlier on the day of the shoot; befriending his wife, Barbara; taking off my prosthesis and my clothes, yet feeling no embarrassment; being painted white to replicate the color of marble sculpture; and posing beside another nude model for different shots.  Covered in body paint, I felt costumed, and as time passed and I posed with other models, I felt less self-conscious.  Being posed as an eye catching detail in the photograph, I felt picturesque.  I remember how Joel would become animated: “That’s it!” he’d exclaim, with orgasmic excitement.  It was all business for him.  He was creating his work, which was the source of his fiery pleasure, and we were his actors.

The resulting photograph is titled “Retablo (New Mexico)” (2007), referencing Latin American, Catholic folk art traditions (and, for me, many self-portraits by Frida Kahlo).  The image was conceived when Joel saw a retablo image featuring two lesbians embracing, wearing only thongs, and posing above a prayer.   Joel’s composition features a triumphant female nude figure as Vernocia, displaying her corporeal glory and gazing down at her lover, Sylvia, a seated nude figure (me), beside her.  I cannot logically explain the photograph, as its excessive imagery defies a central narrative.  It is far more sensory than sensible.  I have my back to the camera and am seated on my two shorted legs (one congenitally amputated above the knee and one below), as I extend my “deformed,” or here fabulist/fabulous arms.  Joel said he especially, aesthetically admired my back, which inspired the pose.  This seated figure that is me is magical and all-powerful; as viewers stare at my back, I stare back.

A framed print of the photograph hangs on my wall, traveling with me to various residences, as a kind of portrait of me as a scholar and performer.  It has been with me through diverse human experiences, both triumphant and traumatic.  My husband, Paul, tells me Joel had ideas of other photographs I could model for, but I was incapacitated for months, physically, and for longer, emotionally, due to an accident I had a month after I posed for him.  My experiences with traumatic brain injury are well beyond the scope of this essay, but they add drama to my history of posing for Joel.  When I received an email in the Spring of 2015 from Joel, asking me to pose again, I was ecstatic that he still thought of me.  I was wondering how this experience would compare with my first, now that I was a professor with a published book, rather than a more star-struck graduate student.  I also questioned whether this photo shoot would bring flashbacks of the first, which, sadly, I remember only from what I wrote about it, what Paul told me, and the snapshots he took on set.

As we drove to Joel’s house for the second visit on a summer morning, things began to look recognizable—the land, house, his studio, and the chickens.  I also spotted a woman who looked familiar, Maya, who had painted me the first time.  After Joel greeted me, like an old friend, Maya and I got caught up on major events in our lives since 2007.  The shooting was not running according to a schedule, and I was unclothed for about two hours before I took my position on the stage.  I sat around waiting, naked; I was surrounded by and observed the orchestrations and choreographies of other actors and a film crew.  The other models, also old friends of Joel’s, lounged and chatted as preparations were made.  Joel would launch into long anecdotes, which were often interrupted by his own laughter, as “Hitler” and “Christ” were painted and costumed by props Joel had gathered from a number of idiosyncratic sources.  After the pig nose, horns, and floppy ears had been adhered to Hitler’s face, Joel exclaimed, “Well, I’ve got balls,” and chuckled.  After sitting unclothed for awhile, I became cold. Joel went to his house to retrieve something for me to wear and returned with a moss green silk shirt with white polka dots.

While sitting naked and being painted marble white by Maya, I spoke with Joel about why he chose me for this photograph and what attracted him to disabled bodies in general.  He told me the story behind the photograph, “Woman in the Blue Hat” (1985).  It was the first time he worked with a disabled model.  When he was at the Whitney Museum’s biennial in NY, he saw someone he knew pushing a woman in a wheelchair.  The woman was very striking to Joel.  She was Armenian, wearing a blue hat, with, he said, “the most beautiful lips I’ve ever seen.” He asked her to pose for him.  He began laughing, recalling how he had foolishly instructed her to move her legs, because she was paralyzed from the waist down.  The model requested that he send her all the test shots before he published or showed them to anyone else, to which he graciously agreed, stating that she was generous, for she had given him the privilege of photographing her. Joel said she had complete control of how and when he displayed her form.  He also told me about an amputee man with no legs whom he had admired and stalked for weeks on the subway before summoning up the courage to ask the man to model for him.

We then discussed my writing about and posing for his work.  He commented that my book was very beautifully done.  I said that a lot of the criticism of his work, which accused it of being exploitative of disabled people, suggests that there is something innately shocking about the disabled body.  I think this claim also assumes that the disabled person doesn’t have agency or couldn’t want to model for him.  As for his use of me as a model, now twice, he said my body was “wonderful looking and emotional,” and that he respected my strength to handle more obstacles than other people.  He called me a “Hero, or heroine of life; you’re a gift to humanity.”  He told me he couldn’t think of anyone who was better for this role than me, for in the photograph, I was to embody all the people wounded by World War II and to emblematize human love, vulnerability, and diversity. I felt honored.

However, the pose was physically uncomfortable.  I had to lay on my side on a tilted platform with my head shielded by a replica of a mask from Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), a dramatic mural-sized painting that is known for its anti-war sentiments.  Over my head, if I looked in that direction, was an excessively large and heavy disco boot worn by Hitler, balanced on a wood pedestal. I made a point not to focus on it.  Joel had explained the set design to me previously, stating that I was in no danger because “the wood’s not going to go anywhere” and that the boot would not come down on me.   However, the wood support did in fact break at one point, but the model thankfully made sure his foot didn’t land on me.  The pedestal was quickly reinforced, and we moved on.  My neck and back ached from my position, but I was not afraid.  I trust Joel.

Joel had sent me a few emails with differing ideas of the narrative of the photograph, and I still don’t know how he interprets the version that he chose.  He took a number of shots, exclaiming directions about how Hitler and Christ should appear angry, attacking one another, or with comical expressions.  The front of my body was displayed, and he told me to shift position, to touch Christ with my left arm, and to put my legs together.  The final image does cast me in somewhat of a ‘crotch shot,’ and although I am not a particularly hairy woman, I do perhaps resemble women during WW II more so than many contemporary models, with their Brazilian bikini waxes.  I don’t feel embarrassed about the photograph, which is hung on the wall in the entrance of my apartment.  I don’t see it as pornographic, because my body is painted white and my face is concealed by the powerful mask; I am a small figure in the lower right hand corner of a still image from an intense, historically and artistically rich, dramatic stage production.

During the shoot, Joel became a driven and uncompromising director, but then he returned to his humorous and kind self. He thanked me again and wrote down my new address, so he could send me a large print of the photograph.  I have written elsewhere more academic analyses of Joel’s photographs, specifically about how both he and his disabled models “perform amputation” on the set of the photo shoot, as well as on the skin of the photographic film.  My first book concludes with a narrative about my role as an amputee performer in his corporeal productions.  In this essay, I look a little closer, suggesting how posing for Joel has affected my understanding of his work and my perspectives on the role of disabled bodies in photography.  It has also deepened the ways I see myself.

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