photography

Joel-Peter Witkin/ Joel-Peter Witkin

United States 1939

Photography

Joel-Peter Witkin
Joel-Peter Witkin
Male
United States
1939

Joel-Peter Witkin is an American photographer whose work deals with outsider subjects and macabre topics not widely covered by other photographers, because of the morbid or disgusting character. Witkin’s imagery often centers on death and features dismembered corpses, as well as dwarves, transsexuals, intersex persons, and physically deformed people. When it comes to his photographic  techniques, Witkin’s work mimics elaborate classical paintings, from the aspect of compositions and carefully chosen lighting. The photographer often works in Mexico, since there are fewer restrictions in the handling of dead bodies compared with the US strict policies.

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Joel-Peter Witkin – Face of a woman, 2004 – image via pinterest.com.jpg

Taste for the Dark Side

Witkin’s photography career began without any official study. He worked as a war photographer during the Vietnam War between 1961 and 1964. After Vietnam, Witkin continued his career as a freelancer and became the official photographer of City Walls Inc. Later on, he studied sculpture at the prestigious Columbia University and earned a BFA in 1974. He also obtained an MFA from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, in 1986. When it comes to his interest in macabre themes, Witkin claims that the triggering moment was a deadly car accident he witnessed as a child. He saw a little girl getting decapitated right in front of his eyes and he crawled down to touch the head of a dead girl and tried to talk to her. This incident left a strong trace in Witkin’s young mind and influenced the direction his photography took. The same goes for his family hardships – Witkin’s parents divorced when he was quite young because they couldn’t reconcile their religious differences. Because of these issues, the artist’s childhood was far from idyllic and he faced various dark topics and uncertainties prematurely. The other important source of inspiration for Witkin’s photography is the look of early daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. His work mimics the techniques and appearance of such early photographs and he uses an old-school chemical development method. He bleaches and tones his prints or scratches their negatives, in order to achieve a certain historical look.

The artist’s childhood was far from idyllic and he has faced dark topics prematurely

Joel-Peter Witkin - Le Baisier, 1982 (left) - Mother and Child,1979 (right) - images via correnticalde.com.jpg
Joel-Peter Witkin – Le Baisier, 1982 (left) / Mother and Child, 1979 (right) – images via correnticalde.com.jpg

From Morbid to Erotic

Witkin’s work reaches far beyond the theme of death and physical deformations. His models are either very beautiful or clearly deformed and Witkin portrays each model in a variety of poses and settings, so as to explore many themes, ranging from the morbid to the erotic. One of his most famous works called Female King (1997), represents an exceptionally tall and obese woman dressed and posed as a king of some imaginary tribe. Another Witkin’s well-known work, called Abundance (1997), portrays a legless and armless woman placed in an urn, while her head is covered with a variety of decorative items, such as flowers and pearls. This woman symbolizes a horn of plenty, which is a term that originates from classical antiquity and represents abundance and nourishment. Generally speaking, Witkin’s dark fancy is rooted in historically important paintings and not only antique one – he quotes Courbet, Seurat and Dali in his photographic tableaux. Some of his compositions, such as Negre’s Fetishist, are a direct reenactment of studies made by other photographers, with inserted fetishistic details. Another interesting point is that in his compositions, Witkin likes to reveal the edges of a painted backdrop, creating the illusion of a representational painting. Also, his dark visions are shaped by the manipulation of the photographic surface, which makes his images look aged or damaged, as if they were really taken in the early 19th century.

Witkin portrays each model in a variety of poses and settings, so as to explore many themes, ranging from the morbid to the erotic

Joel-Peter Witkin - Female King, 1997 (left) - Abundance ,1997 (right) - images via artnet.com.jpg
Joel-Peter Witkin – Female King, 1997 (left) / Abundance ,1997 (right) – images via artnet.com.jpg

International Success

Even though Witkin’s images are often labeled as transgressive and exploitative and they have shocked the public opinion, the artist has achieved a worldwide success and his work has been featured in countless international solo and group shows. He started exhibiting already in the late 50s and had his first solo exhibition was held the early 80s. Since then, Witkin has shown his work in major galleries and museums such as The Brooklyn Museum in New York, Interkamera in Prague, Picture Photo Space in Osaka, Japan and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A major retrospective of his work was held at the eminent Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and his pieces are currently represented by various museum collections throughout the United States.

Even though Witkin’s images are often labeled as transgressive and exploitative and they have shocked the public opinion, the artist has achieved a worldwide success

Joel-Peter Witkin - Cadaver with Necklace, 1980 (left) - Woman Breastfeeding an Eel ,1979 (right) - images via correnticalde.com.jpg
Joel-Peter Witkin – Cadaver with Necklace, 1980 (left) / Woman Breastfeeding an Eel,1979 (right) – images via correnticalde.com.jpg

Understanding Human Oddities

More than everything else, Witkin considers issues of morality as his central ideas,  a basic skeleton of his work. Using a rich collection of sources, such as classical and modern literature, myths, history of sexuality and most eminent paintings, Witkin creates fantastic photographic pieces that portray the morbid, the erotic, and the religious, all mixed up in a surreal, eerie blend that many people find hard to stomach.  In Witkin’s pieces, these moral and above all human issues are represented by plenty of human oddities as well as dead bodies or body parts. This unusual blend of sources and ideas contributes to the shocking, yet deeply spiritual and transcendent nature of his photography.

The artist is represented by Kunzt Gallery.

Joel-Peter Witkin lives and works in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Featured image: Witkin’s Portrait – image via loeildelaphotographie.com
All images used for illustrative purpose only.

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2015The World is not EnoughGalerie Hiltawsky, Berlin, GermanySolo
2015Ames qui viventBaudoin Lebon, Paris, France Group
2014Twin Visions: Jerome Witkin & Joel-Peter Witkin Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, LA, USAGroup
2013Il maestro dei suoi maestriMNAF Alinari National Museum of Photography, Florence, ItalySolo
2012Joel-Peter WitkinBibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France Solo
2011Joel-Peter WitkinBibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France Solo
2010Joel-Peter WitkinGalerie Baudoin Lebon, Paris, France Solo
2010Joel-Peter WitkinCastillo I Sehie, ItalySolo
2010Joel-Peter WitkinMinshar School of Art, Tel Aviv, Israel Solo
2009Joel-Peter WitkinItaú Cultural, São Paulo, Brazil Solo
2008Joel-Peter WitkinCatherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago, USA Solo
2008Poetic RealismSilverstein Photography, New York, USA Solo
2008Joel-Peter WitkinGalerie Baudoin Lebon, Paris, France Solo
2008Joel-Peter Witkin1000 Eventi Gallery, Milan, ItalySolo
2008Joel-Peter WitkinPAC Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea, Milan, ItalySolo
2007Human KindHasted Hunt Gallery, New York, USA Solo
2007Joel-Peter WitkinMaison de la Culture de la Province de Namur, BelgiumSolo
2007RetrospettivaPalazzo Mediceo di Seravezza, ItalySolo
2007The Invisible LandscapeNational Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, CanadaGroup
2006Vintage WorkHasted Hunt Gallery, New York, USA Solo
2006Joel-Peter WitkinCite Internationale des Arts, Paris, France Solo
2006Oeuvres recentesEspace Jules Valles, Saint Martin d'Heres, Belgium Solo
2006Silver RetrospectiveHouston Center for Photography, Houston, USAGroup
2005Joel-Peter Witkin, FaheyKlein Gallery, Los Angeles, USA Solo
2005Joel-Peter WitkinCatherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago, USA Solo
2005Joel-Peter WitkinEtherton Gallery, Tuscon, USA Solo
2004Joel-Peter WitkinBaudoin Lebon Gallery, Paris, France Solo
2004Heart Beats DustRicco-Maresca Gallery, New York, USA Solo
2002The Nature of Still Life: From Fox Talbot to the Present DayGalleria d’Arte Moderna, Bologna, ItalyGroup
2002The image of Jesus Christ in Photography, The Fotografie ForumMuseum of Modern Art, Frankfurt, GermanyGroup
2002Joel-Peter WitkinStadische Museen, Jena, GermanyGroup
2002Joel-Peter WitkinInfinito Gallery, Torino, ItalyGroup
2002Joel-Peter WitkinGalerie Baudoin Lebon, Paris, FranceGroup
2002Joel-Peter WitkinRicco-Maresca Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2002Joel-Peter WitkinFraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, USAGroup
2001Joel-Peter Witkin: Photographs from the Stephan Janssen CollectionUniversity of Arizona Art Museum, Tempe, USAGroup
2001Joel-Peter Witkin: In and Out of LifeArt Concern Gallery, Brussels, BelgiumGroup
2001Joel-Peter Witkin, FaheyKlein gallery, Los Angeles, USAGroup
2001Art Since 1850, an introduction to the CollectionAkron Art Museum, Akron, USAGroup
2000Joel-Peter WitkinPicture Photo Space Japan, Japan, Group
1998Joel-Peter WitkinThe Museum of Fine Arts & the Museum of N.M., Santa Fe, USAGroup
1997Joel-Peter WitkinFraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, USAGroup
1995Joel-Peter WitkinSolomon R. Guggenheim Museum, USA, Group
1995Joel-Peter WitkinFraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, USAGroup
1993Joel-Peter WitkinFraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, USAGroup
1993Magicians of LightNational Gallery of CanadaGroup
1992Joel-Peter WitkinUniversity of Illinois Champaign, Urbana, USAGroup
1989On the Art of Fixing a ShadowNational Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USAGroup
1987Crosscurrents: Forty Years of Photographic ArtLos Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USAGroup
1986Sacred Images in Secular ArtWhitney Museum of American Art, New York, USAGroup
1986Signs of the Times: Some Recuring Motifs in Twentieth Century PhotographySan Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, USAGroup
1986Several Exceptionally Good, Recently Acquired PicturesFraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, USAGroup
1985The Sam Wagstaff CollectionInternational Center of Photography, New York, USAGroup
1985Joel-Peter WitkinWhitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USAGroup
1985Joel-Peter WitkinSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, USAGroup
1983Personal ChoiceVictoria and Albert Museum, London, EnglandGroup
1983Joel-Peter WitkinKansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, USAGroup
1983Joel-Peter WitkinStedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The NetherlandsGroup
1983Joel-Peter WitkinPace Wildenstein MacGill Gallery, New York, USAGroup
1982Joel-Peter WitkinGalerie Texbraun, Paris, FranceGroup
1982Joel-Peter WitkinGalerie Baudoin Lebon, Paris, FranceGroup
1981Joel-Peter WitkinSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, USAGroup
1980Joel-Peter WitkinProjects Studio One, New York, USAGroup
1959Joel-Peter WitkinMuseum of Modern Art, New York, USAGroup