Not long ago, I wrote a piece about Adrian Lyne’s nightmarish horror movie Jacob’s Ladder (1990), starring Tim Robbins. I thought, and continue to think, that it’s an uneven movie whose meandering, occasionally saccharine plot threads are balanced out by all of the shocking, phantasmagoric imagery. Well, imagine my surprise when I was paging through a book of photographs in my American Studies class the other day, and happened across the inspiration for one of the most unforgettable images in all of Jacob’s Ladder!
Some background: this class is called “Extraordinary Bodies in American Culture,” and we were examining the photography of Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin in relation to early 20th century freak shows. The photograph in question is Witkin’s Indulgences Man with No Legs from 1976, collected in Gods of Earth and Heaven. You can see more of Witkin’s work in this blog or this official gallery, but be warned: it’s very, very NSFW, and contains distorted, sexualized, and grotesquely posed images of disabled people and corpses.
Sexualizing and distorting human bodies was pretty much Witkin’s stock-in-trade. It’s easy, therefore, to see why he was such a major influence on Ladder‘s hyperkinetic demons. Although much of his work was done within the past 30-40 years, it’s often so grainy, blurry, and scratched-up that it looks older – as if consigned to some ahistorical netherworld. He casually mixes costumes, gestures, and backdrops in his photographs to evoke disparate sectors of life: a single Witkin photo can suggest BDSM practices, police brutality, Renaissance paintings, carnival sideshows, archaic medical technology, and more.
Certainly Indulgences conjures up numerous eras and activities with its ambiguous, faceless subject. It also raises countless questions, starting with “Why is his face covered?” When coupled with the raised, boxlike structure he’s sitting on, it reminds me of kidnappings – an uncomfortable association, and probably one that Witkin’s aiming for. It’s also very dehumanizing, and this is a consistent feature of Witkin’s work: his disabled subjects are invariably masked, veiled, or facing away from the camera. It feels like Witkin uses disability to facilitate an otherworldly atmosphere.
As much as I respect the bold, confrontational spirit of his artistry, I find this manipulation of human bodies extremely problematic. It’s especially revealing to look at Jacob’s Ladder, where similar distortion effects are used in conjunction with rapid-fire editing in order to code disability and facelessness as hellish and frightening. This intersection of popular cinema with very marginal photography could prove a useful avenue for further research into the relationship between disability and horror; till then, I think I’ll try to not look at Witkin’s shudder-inducing photographs.