At first glance, Joel-Peter Witkin's work appears to be an imagery of a horifically perverse and sadomasochistic fantasy. Using the medium of extreme visual perversion within photography, Witkin displays "'pinheads, dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks, pre-op transsexuals, bearded women, Siamese twins and the elephant man...people with tails, horns, wings...reversed hands or feet.... anyone born without arms, legs, eyes, breast, genitals, ears, nose, lips.... anyone bearing the wounds of Christ...cadavers, Hermaphrodites and teratoids - both alive and dead". Many of the subjects and models are fresh from the morgue and are lovingly photographed, developed and processed by Witkin in a style suggestive of vintage photography.
Although many people question whether images of deformed, scarred and tortured bodies can be classed as art, after a closer examination of the photograph, it is evident that Witkin is passionate about the lives of the 'abnormal' and 'grotesque' people he photographs. His arresting images reveal our powerlessness in the face of madness, disease and death.
Born September 13th 1939 in Brooklyn, New York, Witkin was the child of a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother. Although his parents divorced due to religious differences, Witkin is a practicing Roman Catholic, and for a long time has tried to find the answer to his frustration of his God and religion within his art.
In his 1988 book 'The Bone House', Witkin explains that his macabre ideals of art were not only influenced by Weegee, an urban crime photographer, but also began when he was a small child
"I witnessed a terrible car crash in front of my home. A little girl was decapitated, and I recall her head rolling to my feet - her dead eyes staring blankly upward at me."
Witkin's life has always seemed to revolve around both macabre events and photography. When enlisted in the Army in 1961, he served as a technical sergeant and worked as a photo technician and a photographer, documenting assorted military accidents, until 1964. After the Army, Witkin returned to New York and worked as a professional freelance assistant for technical, medical and commercial photographers, and in 1974 was awarded a CAPS grant in photography through the New York State Council on the Arts. His background also includes a period of immersion in Primal Therapy and a sex life that began with an experience with a hermaphrodite.
Treading a fine line between the rational and the vulgar, Witkin forces overwhelming emotions and religious belief upon his spectators. The initial reaction of most when viewing Witkin's work is that of disgust. But if you look deeper...underneath the display of the disfigured, deranged and the deceased, you will find an understanding of Witkin's determination to find 'wonder and beauty in people whom society has deemed wretched and frightening'. After the initial shock of seeing an image for the first time, if you give Witkin's art a chance and view it with an unbiased opinion, his photographs are often quite extraordinary.
Classed as the reigning King of deviant imagery, Witkin's work initially came into public acclaim in the 1980's. Probably most memorable media coverage was for "Le Baiser" or "The Kiss" - a portrait of the severed head of an elderly gentleman, which has been sliced into two equal halves and, when photographed, turned at such an angle that it gave the impression of the man kissing himself. Allegedly, Witkin had not been granted permission from the deceased gentleman's family to use his corpse for any of his artistic pieces. However, this turned out to be untrue, and the incident's media coverage granted Witkin a gateway into the public eye.
"I do not make the work to disturb people...I photograph death because it is a part of life! I look forward to dying because I think living on earth, in the plane is one part of existence, and death is another, and that we are constantly learning through the process"
If you wish to view Witkin's images, a lot of his works are available on the web. Among the many good sites hosting Witkin's work, I especially recommend:
PLEASE BE AWARE that some people may find these images disturbing.