Joel-Peter Witkin / by Chris Hall

Joel-Peter Witkin (born 1939) is an American photographer, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  His photography celebrates the grotesque and society's outsiders, as he often uses dwarves, transsexuals, inter-sex persons, and the physically deformed as models.  His complex tableaux often recall religious themes, sex, death, and classical paintings. 

Witkin was born to a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother, who soon split because of they were unable to overcome their religious differences.  His twin brother, Jerome Witkin, and his son Kersen Witkin, are also painters.  Between 1961 and 1964, Witkin was a war photographer documenting the Vietnam War.  He attended Cooper Union in New York where he studied sculpture, attaining a Bachelor Arts degree in 1974.  Later he would get his Master of Fine arts degree from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  Witkin claims that his photographic sensibility springs from an event he witnessed as a young child, an automobile accident in front of his house in which a little girl was decapitated:

“It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. While walking down the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident involved three cars, all with families in them. Somehow, in the confusion, I was no longer holding my mother's hand. At the place where I stood at the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I bent down to touch the face, to speak to it -- but before I could touch it someone carried me away.”

Witkin's favorite artist is the early Italian Renaissance painter Giotto.  His photographic techniques draw on early Daguerreotypes and on the work of E. J. Bellocq, who also specialized in photos of society's outsiders.  Bellocq is known for his haunting photographic portraits of Storyville prostitutes in New Orleans and images of life in the opium dens in the early 20th century.  Like William Mortensen (a fellow champion of the grotesque), Witkin also uses techniques to manipulate the image, such as scratching the negative, bleaching and toning the print, and a hands-in-chemical printing process.

Witkin also uses corpses and body parts in his photographic arrangements.  I have not posted any of these photographs (interesting though they may be to look at) as I believe the dead should be respected and not used for art (documentation in war photography is another subject all together, and the ethics even here are in a moral gray zone).  To get around restrictive US laws, Witkin creates his photography using the dead in Mexico.

Many critics have come out to label Witkin's transgressive photography as exploitative, made to purposefully shock a weak stomached, bourgeois public.  Corpses and body parts aside (the dead have no choice as to whether or not to be included in art), I believe that Witkin's use of subjects that society would rather ignore is a noble occupation with a long tradition, from Diego Velazquez to Pablo Picasso.  Showcasing society's outcasts and outsiders in art forces people to acknowledge their own prejudices and hypocrisies.  And once you get past the initial shock of the grotesque and unfamiliar, many of Witkin's photographs can become quite beautiful.

Joel-Peter Witkin's work was the major source of inspiration (along with Francis Bacon) for Mark Romanek's video for the Nine Inch Nails song Closer.