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Joel-Peter Witkin (1939 - )

Lifespan: 1939 -

Related: American art - transgressive art - art photography - macabre

The Bone House () - Joel-Peter Witkin
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Joel-Peter Witkin (born September 13, 1939, in Brooklyn, New York City) is an American photographer.

He was born to Jewish father and a Roman Catholic mother. His parents divorced when witkin was young because they were unable to trascend their religious differences. He attended grammar school at Saint Cecelia's in Brooklyn and went on to Grover Cleveland High School. He worked as war photographer between 1961 and 1964 during the Vietnam war. In 1967 he decide to work as a freelance photographer and became City Walls Inc. official photographer. Later, he attended to Cooper School of Fine Arts in Brooklyn where he studied sculpture and became Bachelor of Arts in 1974. After the Columbia University granted him a scholarship he ended his studies at the New Mexico University in Albuquerque where he became Master of Fine Arts.

Witkin claims that his vision and sensibility was initiated by an episode he witnessed when he was just a small child, a car accident that ocurred in front of his house in which a little girl was decapitated. He also claims that the difficulties in his family were an influence for his work too. His favourite artist, and a major influence in his work, is Giotto

His work often deals with such themes as death, corpses (or pieces of them) and various outsiders such as dwarves, transsexuals, hermaphrodites and physically deformed people. His complex tableauxs often recall religious episodes or famous classical paintings. Because of the transgressive nature of the contents of his pictures, his works have been labeled exploitive and have sometimes shocked public opinion. His art was often marginalized because of this challenging aspect.

He employs a highly intuitive approach to the physical process of making the photograph, including scratching the negative, bleaching or toning the print, and an actual hands-in-the-chemicals printing technique. This experimentation began after seeing a 19th-century ambrotype of a woman and her ex-lover who had been scratched from the frame. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel-Peter_Witkin [2005]

Profile by Matthew Hunt

The most famous photographer of death is Joel-Peter Witkin, who specialised in photographing corpses in Mexican morgues. Witkin's photographs include The Kiss (1982), a severed, bisected head whose two halves appear to kiss each other in an echo of the sculpture Le Baiser. Witkin treated the bodies he photographed as still-life objects, often surrounding them with the tropes of still-life painting such as bowls of fruit though also producing more elaborate, fetishised, and carnivalesque tableaux. His use of dead bodies as props to be manipulated extended to a successful request for the decapitation of a male cadaver for his photograph Man Without A Head (1993). He was continuing a long tradition of Mexican interest in death; indeed, Mexican culture is intensely thanatopsic, historically celebrating death in contrast to our culture's repression of it. Andres Serrano, who has confronted every other taboo discussed here, including sex, bodily fluids, and violence, has also produced a series of photographs with a death theme. His Morgue series (1992), depicting corpses on morgue slabs, is as glossy and alluring as his other work, another box to tick on the check-list of tabooed subject-matter that constitutes his back-catalogue. The most effective images in the series are those of partially-covered bodies whose external injuries are not displayed. Like Gilbert & George's microscopic fluid abstractions, the abject nature of their subject-matter is revealed only by the titles of the images. --http://www.matthewhunt.com/Taboo.html [2004]




  1. Disciple & Master - Joel-Peter Witkin (Photographer), Pierre Borhan (Introduction) [Amazon US]
    Disciple & Master unites witkin's photographs with the images that inspired them. Works by photographers such as Charles Negre, Walker Evans, Horst and Cartier-Bresson are matched with Witkin's compelling visions. Text by the photographer illuminates the complex relationship between each pair of images.

  2. The Bone House - Joel-Peter Witkin (Photographer), Jack Woody (Editor) [Amazon US]
    Witkin's longtime publisher brings out this latest update of his oeuvre with the lush reproductions and immaculate design one expects from Twin Palms. Featuring "First Photograph, Brooklyn, 1950," one photograph from 1998, and even a couple striking paintings, this work ranges widely, but the vast majority of the roughly 90 pieces are from the well-documented 1980s and 1990s. The macabre and sublime mix in these images, mostly tableaux on mythical themes, which Witkin explains with the observation that "I consider myself a portraitist; not of people, but conditions of being." A prominent photography writer, Parry contributes a thoughtful if not revelatory afterword. This may well be the finest collection of Witkin's work to date, and contemporary photography collections will want a copy to complement other titles; public libraries and general collections might make do with the catalog to Witkin's Guggenheim Museum retrospective show (Joel-Peter Witkin, LJ 9/15/95).AEric Bryant, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

  3. Witkin - Joel-Peter Witkin [Amazon US]
    At the age of 6, Joel-Peter Witkin witnessed an automobile accident in which a little girl was decapitated, her head rolling to a stop at his feet. This experience may have had a bearing on his lifelong obsession with the macabre, but does little to prepare the viewer for his bizarre photographs of hermaphrodites and other human grotesqueries. Imagine the fruits of a collaboration between Diane Arbus and Federico Fellini that might be rejected for being a little too extreme. Imagine what Larry Flynt might publish for residents of the Twilight Zone. Two of the milder images: the disembodied, almost skeletal heads of two gnarled old men locked in an intimate kiss; and an obese woman in a cone-shaped mask, breast-feeding an eel. --amazon.com

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