Home > Red Spiral Notebook > [November, 1994] Extremely Unusual

[November, 1994] Extremely Unusual

Photo by Joel-Peter Witkin


“She had escaped demons—things of rot and wickedness—and she would have offered up a prayer of thanks for her deliverance if the sky had not been so wide and bright, and so plainly devoid of deities to hear.” – Clive Barker (Cabal)


I finally saw some photographs by Joel Peter Witkin. I only looked through the book twice but found that my knees were shaking when I got up afterwards. It wasn’t scary exactly…extremely unusual. That’s always a good quality, I suppose (as long as no harm is done to anyone). Also got some poetry by Bukowski. Taped Figure Drawing. A certain PHM lyric nags at the back of one’s mind.

“Her mind’s downward spiral of morbidity made her fearful—for the first time in her life—of her own mental processes.” – Clive Barker

[Major goth forshadowing going on here.]

More of my teenage code. I thought “Figure Drawing” was some pretentious show or movie I recorded, but it was actually an episode of Beavis and Butthead. And PHM = Pretty Hate Machine, though heaven only knows what lyric I was alluding too. Suffice it to say it was angsty and wannabe-deep.

The "Closer" video, while a decent homage to Witkin, doesn't come close to the intensity of the original work.

The interest in Joel-Peter Witkin was sparked by Trent Reznor mentioning him in an interview. It wasn’t until later that I learned that the Nine Inch Nails video for “Closer” is an homage to his work, which frequently features amputees, cadavers, circus freaks, and compositions out of an S&M nightmare. I still remember seeing Witkin’s photos for the first time. I was at the Mid-Manhattan library doing research for a school project and had some free time, so I headed over to the Photography section. I took the heavy tome to a desk and read a bit about Witkin’s background. When he was a little boy, he witnessed a car accident in which a little girl’s decapitated head rolled toward his feet, which could have triggered a fascination with the macabre. I remember looking through those photos, which I did find disturbing, but I thought I was too cool for school until I stood up to put the book away and found my legs had gone wobbly.

As for Charles Bukowski, that curiosity came from a song on U2’s album Zooropa, “Dirty Day,” was dedicated to the poet. I was a sponge for inspiration back then, and wanted to sift through the influences of my influences, to see if it sparked anything in me. I also lived a pretty sheltered life, so delving into Bukowski’s world of booze, prostitutes, and economic squalor made me uncomfortable, but in a good way.

I guess that was a running theme for my junior year of high school, stepping out of my comfort zone, exploring the things that scared or intimidated me, whether it was a song or photograph or poem, or anything that explored the darker side of human nature (Clive Barker being another good source for that). Maybe it’s because I was a bit too sheltered as a kid, or maybe it’s a phase a lot of teenagers go through. Except that I’m still going through it, to an extent.  Joel-Peter Witkin became, and remains to this day, one of my favorite photographers. I still appreciate Bukowski, too, but find a little goes a long way, and always preferred the poetry to the short stories. On the whole, while I don’t go out of my way to seek out macabre things that will make me uncomfortable, I’m still fascinated with the oddities in life. They’re a reminder that no matter how much we try to make sense of the world, ultimately it’s still a pretty strange place.

  1. Liz
    July 5, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    I never read Cabal, but believe it or not a family favorite film in the late 90s was Nightbreed, which was based on the same story if I’m not mistaken!
    Re. the photography, you might like Lauren.Rabbit (Lauren Simonutti), whom I discovered through Flickr. I bought one of her self-published books at one point.
    I’d be curious about whether you might like Jan Saudek as well. I was really into him in college and even did my own project as an homage to him for a class assignment. 🙂

    • July 6, 2011 at 8:54 pm

      I think I saw Nightbreed a long long time ago, and yes it was based on a Clive Barker novel, but I can’t remember which one (or whether I even liked the movie!).

      Lauren Rabbit’s work is pretty cool, definitely an aesthetic I go for. Saudek’s photos don’t do it for me as much, but the way he colors them is really cool. Thanks for the recommendations!

  1. January 9, 2012 at 10:32 pm
  2. January 20, 2014 at 3:00 pm
  3. September 29, 2014 at 6:49 pm

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