Director Trisha Ziff’s documentary Witkin and Witkin is a fascinating journey through the lives of artists and identical twins Joel-Peter Witkin, a world-famous photographer, and Jerome Witkin, a painter and college art professor. What begins as a novelty look at comparing and contrasting the experiences of twins who have lived into their 70s morphs into a lively and entertaining focus on their art.
It turns out, their approaches to art are far more interesting than the fact that they are twins. Into their teens, the boys were treated somewhat as a sideshow act. They dressed alike, and people, including their mother and sister, considered them a curiosity. Jerome began painting at a very young age, and the attention this garnered set up antagonism between the twins, as his brother took longer to find his passion in photography. As a result of these insecurities, Joel still tries to impress his brother with his accomplishments.
As they grew to adulthood, they drifted apart. Jerome is more quiet and introverted, while Joel threw himself headlong into the Avante Garde. He focuses his photography on unusual subjects and different human forms than what is classically considered beautiful. He has photographed dismembered body parts, amputees, and corpses. In a 2014 interview in Musee magazine, he took exception to being asked about his “morbid” photos, “…my photographs are not ‘morbid.’ Morbid means unhealthy and deformed. I photograph social outcasts because I want to celebrate their singularity and the strength it takes for them to engage life.”
“… a fascinating journey through the lives of artists and identical twins…”
This aesthetic was part of Mark Romanek’s inspiration for the provocative “Closer” music video from Nine Inch Nails. Joel’s challenging approach has made him renowned in the art world. He has been compared to Robert Mapplethorpe for his bold, challenging images. Where Joel is an adventurer in extreme realms, Jerome, on the other hand, seeks his bliss in teaching others to see and translate the experience of being with a subject in their art. Jerome is the quiet intellectual, where Joel is the brash showman. They had not had much communication for nearly five decades when they came together for a show in Mexico City entitled Witkin and Witkin.
From here, Witkin and Witkin turns back toward the synchronicity of two separate lives. It’s uncanny how alike the brothers are, despite their differences. They both independently concluded from individual experiences the more interesting aspects of the world are the ones that get the least attention, the darker themes. They may not need to communicate frequently, as they exist rather like different aspects of the same person. Jerome takes great comfort knowing Joel is out there making art, even if they live far apart and rarely speak.
Ziff has pulled off an astonishing accomplishment with Witkin and Witkin. The film works on many levels. Firstly, the viewer is drawn into the “weird news” curiosity about identical twins who go their separate ways. Then comes the compelling rush of fascination around the art they make. Finally, she delivers a tender, charming look at two very different lives of artists have gone through many experiences and relationships. It combines a sideshow with an art course and a twin biography that is exceedingly entertaining.
"…an astonishing accomplishment..."