Joel-Peter Witkin

Joel-Peter Witkin Photo

An American photographer, Joel-Peter Witkin, born in 1939, is recognized for working on subjects that are controversial, morbid, gruesome with a gothic appearance, portraying death and corpses. His photographs also portray mutilated parts of transsexuals, hermaphrodites, dwarfs and other malformed people. Witkin’s work mostly deals with dark subjects outrageously violating fundamental norms of society and basic sensibility.

Witkin had a Roman Catholic mother and Jewish father. Jerome Witkin (his twin) and Kerson Witkin (his son) are painters. At young age, he had to face his parent’s divorce due to religious diversity. Later, he attended Saint Cecelia’s in Brooklyn and headed towards Grover Cleveland High School. At first, from 1961 to 1964, he was a war photographer and documented the Vietnam war. By 1967, he worked as an official freelance photographer for City Walls Inc. In 1964, he attained a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cooper Union in New York, where he learned sculpture. Then he finished off as a Master of Fine Arts at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Witkin asserts that his sense of photography came from an incident he witnessed as a child, when a vehicle left a young girl decapitated. The difficulties that occurred in his family due to his parent’s non-willingness to live together and then the following circumstances also heavily affected his mind which enabled him to envision the world the way he portrays in his work. Giotto di Bondone is his much loved artist. Witkins photographic techniques are a reflection of the E.J. Bellocq’s work.

Concentrating on his artistic techniques, he embraced toning and bleaching in print, scraping the negative and doing chemical printing with hands. Joel-Peter Witkin avoids using computer to produce his work, instead he uses traditional methods. He uses twin-lens 1960’s camera with conventional film rolls. He differs from other photographers because he works heavily on the negatives and also the content described in his images is based on his vision and fantasies about the world.

Others also gained influence from Witkin’s work. Alexander McQueen’s closing presentation for 2001 summer/spring collection was inspired by “Sanitarium”, Witkin’s  photograph. Besides this, in 2011, a documentary, Joel-Peter Witkin: An Objective Eye was made which released in July 2013. Thomas Marino directed the film that focused  on Witkin’s personal and professional life with a meditative look. The documentary included in-depth interviews with Witkin and from eminent artists, photographers, scholars and gallery owners who realize the impact on Witkin’s work on contemporary culture.

On one hand, fundamentalists and some other people visualize him as a repulsive and pervert photographer cum artist. The nature of his work has been marked as offensive and shocking to public eye. On the other hand, the art world recognizes Joel-Peter Witkin as a profound contemporary artist.  Therefore, his limited editions are the highest priced postmodern works. It is felt that there is magic in the way he plays with light and the mistreatment he does to his negatives makes it a spectacular form of Transgressive art. People who like his photography can imagine Witkin being defensive about his work, by saying that even if he isn’t there with his camera, such things/events (that many call atrocious) will happen, no doubt. His allure towards people’s physical features has stimulated  many people and there are those who feel that his work confronts the sense of decorousness and normalcy.


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