Joel-Peter Witkin was born in Brooklyn in 1939. Drafted in 1961, he was a combat photographer in Vietnam until 1964. In 1967, he became the official photographer for City Walls Inc. He received a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from Cooper Union in 1974. During this perios Columbia University granted him a scholarship in poetry but he finished his graduate studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he received both an M.A. and an M.F.A.
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, Balthus, Goya, Velásquez, 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 Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris, among many others. Witkin is represented by Catherine Edelman Gallery and currently resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico.Rose Mathies