Joel-Peter Witkin (born September 13, 1939, in Brooklyn, New York City) is an American photographer who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work often deals with such themes as death, corpses (and sometimes dismembered portions thereof), and various outsiders such as dwarves, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and physically deformed people. Witkin's complex tableaux often recall religious episodes or classical paintings.
Witkin was born to a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother. His twin brother, Jerome Witkin, and son Kersen Witkin
, are also painters. Witkin's parents divorced when he was young because they were unable to overcome their religious differences. He attended grammar school at Saint Cecelia's in Brooklyn and went on to Grover Cleveland High School. Between
1961 and 1964 he was a war photographer documenting the Vietnam war. Going freelance in 1967, he became the official photographer for City Walls Inc. He attended Cooper Union in New York where he studied sculpture, attaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1974. After Columbia University granted him a scholarship, he ended his studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he became Master of Fine Arts.
Finding beauty within the grotesque, Witkin’s work extends beyond post-mortem photography with his staged set-ups of corpses and dismembered parts. Witkin’s fascination with death was triggered by a life-altering episode at a very early age; he witnessed an automobile accident in front of his house in which a young girl was decapitated. Witkin has also pursued his interest in the human condition, drawing attention to “the other,” photographing marginalized groups of people. Those often cast aside by society—hermaphrodites, dwarfs, amputees, androgynes— inspire his work as he confronts the viewers’ sense of normalcy.
His interest in spirituality, in particular the teachings of Christianity, has played into his work, as do frequent references to classical paintings. Works by Picasso
, and Miro
reappear in his dramatic, staged scenes, as well as the work of E.J. Bellocq
, who photographed a series on prostitutes of the red light district in New Orleans in the early twentieth century.
Witkin’s work has been exhibited internationally at the Museum of Modern Art
in New York, the Fraenkel Gallery
in San Francisco, Galerie Baudoin Lebon
in Paris, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France
in Paris, among many others. Witkin is represented by Catherine Edelman Gallery
and currently resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Source: International Center of Photography