For more than twenty years Joel-Peter Witkin has pursued his interest in spirituality and how it impacts the physical world. The artist creates surreal tableaux with which he seeks to dismantle our preconceived notions about sexuality and physical beauty. Void of all shyness, finding desire within the repugnant and sacred within the profane, Witkin approaches these complex issues by working with the people most often cast aside by society in an unapologetic presentation of deformity. He begins each image by sketching his ideas on paper and perfecting every detail before he picks up his camera. Once the scene is photographed, he spends hours in the darkroom, scratching and piercing his negatives, transforming them into pictures that look made rather than taken. From their conception to their completion as ornate constructions, his references to traditional art historical iconography serve as a backdrop to his subjects and as a foundation for his ideas.
Witkin and his twin brother—famous painter Jerome Witkin—were born in 1939 in Brooklyn, New York. The artist claims his vision and sensibility were instigated by a car accident he witnessed as a child in which a little girl was decapitated. He received a camera at the age of 15 after taking an introductory class in photography. After high school and jobs in New York colour labs, he joined the military and documented the Vietnam War. Witkin studied at the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture, and received his B.A. in 1974. During this same period, Columbia University awarded him with a fellowship in poetry. He completed his studies at the University of New Mexico, where he earned his MA in 1976 and his MFA in 1981. Witkin is also a recipient of the Commandeur d'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France. Bruce Silverstein organised a major exhibition of his work in 2008.
Joel Peter Witkin has been exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada; Bibliotèque Nationale de Paris, Guggenheim Bilbao; Moscow House of Photography; Museum of Contemporary Photography Chicago; Houston Center for Photography; ARCO Madrid; Israel Museum; Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea, Milan; and the Whitney Museum in New York among others. His work is included in numerous public and private collections worldwide including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Centre George Pompidou, Paris; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; George Eastman House, Rochester; Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Some of his most important published works are the monograph Joel-Peter Witkin (2007), Joel-Peter Witkin, Disciple & Master (2000), Joel-Peter Witkin, A Retrospective (1995), Harms Way (1994), Joel-Peter Witkin, Twelve Photographs in Gravure (1994), Gods of Earth and Heaven (1989), and Joel-Peter Witkin : Forty Photographs (1985). The artist currently lives and works in Albuquerque, New Mexico.