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Ostend International Photography Biennale 2023 : Joel-Peter Witkin


Based on an original idea from John Devos, our correspondent for Belgium and the Netherlands, the Bart Ramakers Gallery presents Joel-Peter Witkin.

The relationship between photography and other arts is complex and intriguing. On one hand, photography can be seen as a derived form of painting: early photographers were often influenced by the composition, use of light, and imagery of painters. It was under the wing of painting, in a way, that photography was able to develop as a new art form. On the other hand, the advent of photography also had a major impact on other arts. Painters, sculptors, and other artists were faced with the question of what their role would now be, given the existence of a medium capable of capturing reality in an almost perfect way. Some artists integrated a photographic approach into their own work, while others opposed realistic representation and focused on abstraction and the expression of emotion. The rise of digital photography has further altered the relationship between photography and other arts. In short, the relationship between photography and other arts is dynamic and evolving. This creates a fascinating game where the boundaries between different art forms become increasingly blurred and new possibilities are explored.

This is precisely the main theme of the International Biennale of Photography Ostend 2023, curated by Stephane Verheye: (IN)FLUX.

Profanation and veneration

Among the 32 participating artists is the renowned and controversial master of art: Joel Peter Witkin. It was John Devos (former professor at Narafi – LUCA School of Arts Brussels, art critic and independent curator) who suggested the idea of presenting Joel Peter Witkin to Bart Ramakers, photographer and gallery owner. Thanks to Ramakers’ contacts with the Baudoin Lebon gallery in Paris, and Baudoin’s enthusiasm, the dream became a reality. Stéphane Verheye, on his part, was immediately captivated by the idea and proposed to organise a parallel exhibition in Fort Napoleon, a former fortification in the dunes and the main venue of the biennale.

Stéphane Verheye: “Joel Peter Witkin has broken the barriers of photography as an art, both in terms of content and form. He has pushed the limits of visual language by emphasizing taboos: mutilation, deformation, suffering and death. Additionally, he has innovated the technique of photography. He composes his images with meticulous care, investing a considerable amount of time in designing costumes, accessories, and staging. However, his work does not end once the photo is taken. Printing is just as essential, and Witkin has developed a unique technique over two decades by scratching and marking his negatives. He prints through tissue, followed by a toning and bleaching process, or he colors and seals the photo with museum wax. The result can easily be mistaken for a painting. Creation and destruction go hand in hand, profanation and veneration coexist as two sides of the same coin. Witkin’s playful spirit covers the entire spectrum of creative possibilities, but moreover, he incessantly recycles elements of art history to create new stories and mythologies that have their own singular logic: his own.”

Religious iconographyAnyone seeking to delve into the man behind this body of work soon becomes entangled in a tapestry of captivating tales, each more believable than the last. Witkin is a masterful storyteller, both through his artistic creations and in person, possessing an uncanny ability to capture the eccentricities of life. Joel Peter Witkin: “Some people think that I have absolutely no moral limits, but the opposite is actually true. What I do is sacred to me. It is a form of religious iconography. I think this is sorely lacking in contemporary art, which often revolves around escapism and refuses to face harsh reality.”

Instead of limiting himself to provocation, Witkin has created his own mythology, which impacts not only photography and art, but also our entire society. His narrative highlights vulnerability, fragility, value, beauty and love present in all things and in everyone. At the same time, he puts into perspective the supposed omnipotence of modern man, science, and technology.


“I want to change the way we see and think,” says Witkin. However, don’t ask him what the best way to view his works is. “The reason why some artworks continue to exist and why I hope my art will continue to exist is because the artist’s subconscious is stored within them. Something that cannot be defined.” Although he is very clear about his definition (and love) of photography. “What makes a photo strong is that it is based on silence, unlike a film, for example. A photographer wants to capture something, compress it into a single silence. Indeed, if you want to be honest with someone, you don’t speak, you catch them and kiss them. This silence, this feeling, is what contributes to the quality of a good photograph.”

Where the exhibition at Fort Napoléon presents a wide range of his work in a scenography adapted to the possibilities and limitations of a historic monument, Galerie Papillon focuses on his most complex staged works, most of which come from the 21st century. It can be noticed there that the artist, mainly known for his predilection for the grotesque and the macabre, becomes more human – lighter – in a sense, with age; he begins to approach subjects with more nuances and finds true transcendence in his latest works. “As I grow older and my aesthetic evolves, the work becomes more complex,” says Witkin. “It can’t get any more difficult than this.” In addition to the works, the exhibition Staging Stories presents studies, sketches, collages, annotations, and props that appear in the photographs – thus offering a rare glimpse into the creative process of the maestro.

The catalogue of the exhibition Staging Stories at Galerie Papillon (NL – FR – EN) offers a comprehensive overview of the life and work of the artist, inseparable according to himself.


International Photography Biennial, Ostend
September 16 – November 12, 2023

Joel Peter Witkin at Fort Napoleon
Vuurtorenweg 13, Ostend
Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm

Joel Peter Witkin: Staging Stories
Galerie Papillon
Madridstraat 2 (corner of Marie-Joséplein, first floor), Ostend
Wednesday-Friday 2pm-6pm
Saturday-Sunday 11am-6pm

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