I wanted my photographs to be as powerful as the last thing a person sees or remembers before death.
– Joel-Peter Witkin
Joel-Peter Witkin (born September 13, 1939) is an American photographer who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work often deals with themes such as death, corpses (and sometimes dismembered portions thereof), and various outsiders such as people with dwarfism, transgender and intersex persons, as well as physically deformed people. Witkin’s complex tableaux often recall religious episodes or classical paintings.
The photography of Joel-Peter Witkin depicts the macabre and thrives with controversy. Narrating a darker, often grotesque, or gruesome view of society for more than 40 years, his photographs leave the viewer restless at least. Portraying dark tableaus and still lifes using subjects ranging from various societal outcasts to rotting corpses and dismembered body parts, Witkin creates photographs that resemble a freak show circus from the turn of the century but are painstakingly constructed and imbued with complex meanings and metaphors behind them. His world is both hauntingly beautiful and grotesque, both fascinating and frightening.
His techniques include scratching the negative, bleaching or toning the print, and using a hands-in-the-chemicals printing technique. Using experimental methodologies, Witkin carefully builds scenes that introduce literary, religious, and art-historical allusions. “I have consecrated my life to changing matter into the spirit with the hope of one day seeing it all. Seeing in its total form, while wearing the mask, from the distance of death,” the artist reflects. “And there, in the eternal destiny, to seek the face I had before the world was made.” Born in Brooklyn, NY, Witkin earned his BA at the Cooper Union School of Art and later an MFA from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. In 2011, a survey book was published, providing a concise insight into the working methods and ideologies of the photographer. Today, his works can be found in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The artist currently lives and works in Albuquerque, NM.