This paper probes the fleshy folds that associatively link the bodies — visual and textual— of William Blake and contemporary American photographer, Joel-Peter Witkin. Witkin is infamous for his constructed Gothic photographs that feature unlikely subjects: including dismembered corpses, transgender, intersex, animal hybrid, obese and disabled bodies. While most frequently compared to fellow grotesque photographers, such as Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, Witkin’s gothic eye also strains at much more classical targets. Indeed, Witkin is in a much longer conversation with painters and artists, including Diego Velázquez (of Las Meninas fame), Sandro Botticelli (Witkin’s Gods of Earth and Heaven revises Botticelli’s Birth of Venus with a pre-op transsexual as Venus), Francisco de Goya (Witkin’s Manuel Osorio replaces the royal child with a small monkey), and William Blake.
In 2004, Witkin published two rich collections of staged photographs titled Songs of Innocence and Experience, in clear homage to Blake. In this text, Blake’s poetry from the titular text is set alongside Witkin’s photographs, the latter of which bear little resemblance to Blake’s own work, at least on first blush. But is Blake more than Witkin’s dark Muse? In what follows, I offer a tableaux of my own — a series of close readings of select Witkin’s images from this seldom-studied collection read with and against Blake’s illuminated Songs. How do Witkin’s formal choices also re-organ-ize Blake’s body? Ultimately, I argue there is what we can call a queer “family resemblance” (to riff on Wittgenstein’s phrase) between the two texts, and Blake and Witkin converge in Songs in what might be thought of as a queer family album.
Elizabeth Effinger teaches eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton (Canada). Her special interests are in William Blake, the intersections of Romantic arts and sciences, the Anthropocene, the Gothic, and human-animal studies. She co-edited William Blake’s Gothic Imagination: Bodies of Horror (Manchester University Press, 2018).